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The Magnificent Marquess


Gail Eastwood

Author’s Edition (2017)

Original Edition published by Signet/NAL (1998)

“Ms. Eastwood weaves a fascinating web of piquant romance and spine-tingling danger

guaranteed to take your breath away.” —Romantic Times Magazine

All rights reserved. © 1998, 2017

Duplication of this material in any form is strictly prohibited.

The Magnificent Marquess

What if falling in love meant the death of the one you cared for?

Can the course of true love be stopped?

Mariah Parbury’s curiosity about Lord Milbourne’s former life in India leads her into

a dangerous relationship with the eccentric but spectacularly handsome and wealthy marquess.

Can they conquer the evil that haunts his past for a chance at love?

The Magnificent Marquess

by Gail Eastwood

Copyright 1998 Gail Eastwood-Stokes

Smashwords Edition

All rights reserved.

First published in paperback by Penguin/NAL Signet, August 1998

“Author’s Cut” Edition published by Gail Eastwood, May 2017

Copyright © Gail Eastwood-Stokes

Please Note

No part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any manner or form without written permission from the copyright holder, except in the case of quotation in reviews or articles. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the copyright holder is illegal and punishable by law. Please only purchase authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of author’s rights is appreciated.

This is a work of historical fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or establishments–except where used in a historical context–is entirely coincidental.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Author’s Note

Books by Gail Eastwood

Excerpt from The Captain’s Dilemma

About the Author

Chapter One

Mariah Parbury sent a little prayer spiraling up past the plaster cherubs cavorting on her family’s drawing room ceiling. Couldn’t her parents and siblings be suddenly blessed with the miracle of thespian talent? Please? If they could not be genuinely interested in the stories their honored guest was sharing, as she was, at least there would be some hope of not offending him.

As it was now, their glassy-eyed stares and frozen smiles seemed unlikely to fool anyone. Could he possibly have failed to notice? Mariah felt a little frozen in place herself, torn between embarrassment over their reactions and her own fascination with the man. Er, with his stories, that was. Neither crawling under her chair nor strangling her family were acceptable options (most un-ladylike). Moreover, she did not want to miss a word he said.

She could listen to Lord Milbourne for as long as he wanted to speak. For one thing, listening offered an excuse for looking, and the handsome marquess’s golden hair and striking amber eyes were reward enough for doing that. But more, his exotic tales of India opened a fascinating new world to her, as if a brilliant light had burst into the grayness of her quite ordinary life. Hanging on his every word and trying not to actually stare at him might not be the most seemly behavior, but was it not preferable to her family’s fixed, vacant expressions?

“What would you suppose is the correct response when a tiger is prowling about one’s camp in the night?” the marquess asked, looking around at his listeners. Honestly, how could they not be interested?

Mariah’s brother William, slouched in the damask-upholstered chair nearest to their guest, seemed to shake himself awake. “Uh, grab the nearest pistol or musket?”

One might expect William at least to be making a better effort. His long friendship with Lord Milboune most certainly had to be the only reason the marquess had agreed to come to dinner at the Parburys’ London home in the first place. In the six weeks since he’d arrived in the city, he had already earned a reputation as reclusive. It was very surprising that he had entirely—almost determinedly—dominated all conversation during the forty-five minutes since he’d arrived at their house.

“No, my friend,” Lord Milbourne said with a chuckle. “If you tried that you would very likely lose your life, or at least a limb. I must beg the ladies’ pardon, but I have seen a tiger who was shot three times move on to attack and tear a man’s leg clean off.”

Mariah thought her father, seated in the large armchair across from the marquess, looked slightly more attentive now, but the baron was a man of few words at most times. Her mother, in a smaller matching chair to the right of their guest, opened her fan and waved it vaguely. Her sisters, Rorie and Georgie sharing the pale blue sofa and the youngest, Cassie, on a wooden straight chair like Mariah’s, shifted their expressions from bored to suitably alarmed.

“Then what is the correct response?” William asked. He raised an eyebrow at the marquess and received an answering look that Mariah could not decipher. Was something going on with them?

No one else spoke.

“At first, lie quietly on one’s cot and hope the prowler won’t go after the horses,” the marquess said, looking around at them all again. “Then, when the animal is not so close, to have everyone grab pots, pans, blocks, anything that can make a loud noise including weapons and voices, and make as overwhelming a racket as possible. Tigers have a low tolerance for uncomfortable situations.”

He paused for breath and silence enveloped the room again.

A tiger wouldn’t be happy here, Mariah thought.

Mindful of her mother’s specific instructions, she had stifled every question she had wanted to ask since her brother’s friend had arrived at their home. Now she tried to imagine living in a country where beautiful, dangerous wild creatures roamed at large. She simply couldn’t stop herself. “Do tigers live everywhere in India, my lord?”

For a moment Lord Milbourne looked surprised and gratified. Lady Parbury, however, was looking daggers at Mariah.

“They do, Miss Parbury,” the marquess said. “While this particular tiger lived in a small region between Bombay and Poonah, tigers inhabit a wide variety of types of landscapes, and can be found anywhere on the subcontinent.”

With renewed energy, he launched into all manner of other interesting facts about tigers. The fixed smiles fell back into place on the faces of her family members. When Lord Milbourne seemed to be slowing down again, William roused himself to ask another question. “Did you encounter any tigers in Lampur?”

Mariah saw another look pass between the two young men. Was she the only one paying enough attention to notice it?

* * *

Reinhart Maycott, Lord Milbourne, hesitated to branch into the next topic. Talking about Lampur treaded dangerously close to personal topics he wished to avoid. William was only trying to help, but he didn’t know half of what Ren had been through in these last recent years.

Still, he wanted to keep up a steady, overwhelming barrage of stories and information. God knew, after nearly an hour the effort was becoming excruciating. Was his strategy working?

He glanced quickly around the Parburys’ drawing room at his listeners. Fixed stares and polite smiles failed to hide their boredom. Excellent! Even Will looked half-asleep, and he had suggested this plan to Ren in the first place.

Ren smiled. It appeared that only one person in the room was immune to his effort to be an insufferable guest: Will’s third sister, Mariah. One failure out of seven. Somehow, he didn’t mind. She was not the prettiest of the four young women, but she had intelligent gray eyes and a pert alertness that he found rather charming. She regarded him intently, nodding with enthusiasm, and seemed constantly on the verge of asking questions, although she had not actually voiced any until the one about tigers. Perhaps not every woman in London was blinded by his wealth and newly inherited title.

“Lampur, where I have lived for the last three years, is a tiny but very wealthy state in the mountains next to Mysore,” he said, starting again. “I did not personally encounter any tigers while I was there, but as in other parts of the Hindustan, hunting them was considered prime sport.” He thought he should spare the ladies any details about that. “Lampur is blessed with some of the only gold mines in the Hindustan, which is both a curse and a source of great power.”

Some of the younger eyes rolled, and he nearly laughed. He had already talked at length about the importance of gold in Indian culture and its role in the trade economies of the various regions.

“Neighboring states always wish to acquire that source of gold for themselves, but wealth can be its own defense. The Raja of Lampur can bribe or quite simply purchase almost any army that would threaten to come against his territory.” Except for ours.

Mentioning that their own country also had designs on Lampur’s wealth was probably impolitic, since he wasn’t certain of Lord Parbury’s stance on many Indian issues. Completely offending his host might guarantee that Ren would not be invited again, but he only meant to earn a reputation as an entirely boring guest, not to destroy his friendship with Will. He needed the few friends he had here. He glanced again at William, who obliged him with a half-stifled yawn. Please God, couldn’t dinner be ready soon?

Ren launched into a description of Lampur’s beautiful landscape and the moderating effect of the mountains on India’s warm climate.

* * *

Caught up in Lord Milbourne’s narrative, Mariah nearly jumped when Bennett, her family’s butler, appeared in the doorway. “Dinner is served, my lord and my lady.”

The summons seemed heaven-sent, despite its delivery by her family’s purely mortal butler. She could have kissed the poor fellow’s leathery old cheek. Food would be a distraction, and might keep her family better engaged.

She waited for her mother’s signal. There. Lady Parbury rose from her seat. No audible sigh of gratitude issued from the rest of the company—they were too well-bred for that—but a new energy infused the little party as it began to gather itself up into a procession for dinner. Mariah happily abandoned her hard, wooden seat then, certain its fretted back had left an imprint of every line upon her own.

While her mother took charge of organizing the expedition down to the dining room, Mariah was content to hang back and watch. Her sense of relief was cut short, however, by the sight of her younger sister Cassandra bearing down upon her with a look as purposeful as that of a sheepdog singling out a lamb.

“Mariah, do you not think the marquess is the most magnificent gentleman you have ever seen?” Cassie murmured, grasping Mariah’s arm and drawing her further aside. Mariah might have agreed as she noted how very tall he was in the midst of her family, but she had no chance. Cassie went on without so much as drawing breath. “’Tis simply criminal that his conversation should be, well, so suffocatingly tedious!”

Oh, no. Cassie along with the rest of them. “Cassie, hush!” Mariah looked about warily. “What a thing to say! Suppose he should hear you?”

But her caution met only a giggle and a bounce of flaxen curls. Sixteen-year-old Cassie was not known for her good judgment. “I doubt he can hear us, or anything, with Rorie and Georgie on either side of him and Mama busy telling everyone where they should be!”

Their mother’s penetrating tones could mask louder comments than theirs, it was true. Under the cover of her most brilliant smile, Lady Parbury was attempting to correct her son in the doorway as her elder two daughters flanked their guest. Baron Parbury stood silently to one side, safely out of the fray as usual, while the group prepared to march through the passageway and descend the stairs.

“William, since Aurora is the eldest, the marquess must escort her, and you must take down your sister Georgiana.” The baroness nodded benignly as her son moved to comply, missing entirely the look he exchanged with the marquess. As he passed his mother she nudged him and added in a disappointed undertone, “You must pay attention to these matters, William! You are a grown man.”

Mariah sighed. If only their mother would learn to be less obvious! William’s “error” was understandable, since in most households, the marquess should have escorted Lady Parbury herself, instead of her husband. But in this instance the baroness had another quite specific scheme in mind—pushing Rorie at the marquess.

Their guest was stunningly attractive. Cassie’s “magnificent” could be both over-dramatic and still correct, for “handsome” quite failed to do him justice. Mariah’s breath seemed to catch a little every time she looked directly at him, which of course she had been trying to avoid. But how could she not? He drew her gaze like a magnet. And besides that, he was single, reportedly as rich as Croesus, and obviously a prime target for every marriage-minded female in London. She even felt a trifle sorry for him. Who knew that William’s old school friend would become such a catch?

He’d told them he had become known as “The Lion of Lampur” in India and he quite looked the part. He was a giant of a man—nearly a head taller than William and so broad-shouldered that his coat of claret superfine strained to fit him properly. The tawny shade of his hair nearly matched the color of his striking eyes. Mariah imagined that his lazy-lidded gaze could sharpen into a predatory stare upon an instant’s provocation.

His face showed the patrician lines of his Austrian-English parentage, with well-defined cheekbones, a straight, narrow nose and a sculptural curve to his upper lip that she found fascinating. His skin, while obviously fair, seemed kissed by just enough sun to render it golden, too—as if he himself had been touched by the riches of the exotic land he had so recently quit. He exuded an air of raw animal power that certainly matched his nickname. There must be a story about how he had earned that, but he had not told it. Mariah would have loved to ask. Despite all his tales, he had shared little that was truly personal.

Still, she found it exhilarating to meet someone who had lived such an exciting life, so different from her own endless parade of uneventful days. The hint of mystery about him only made him more appealing. She had soaked up every word, thirsty for his knowledge of mysterious places and scarcely able to look away from him. How could her family be so uninterested? She had a hundred questions, but had dutifully choked back every one of them, mindful of her mother’s stern warning about drawing attention to herself, away from Rorie.

Had there been the remotest chance of anyone actually noticing her, Mariah feared she might have made a great cake of herself, showing too much enthusiasm for their guest. However, as the third of four Parbury daughters, the next quietest after Georgie, and not blessed with the blonde beauty of her sisters, she was not the sort of young woman for whom being noticed was generally an issue. (Lamentably, she had hair like William and their father, light brown and impossibly curly.) Fading into the background was more her forte.

“’Tis inconceivable how every possible topic leads back to life in India,” Cassie whispered. “If I have to hear one more story about Hindu rituals or gold mining in Lampur, I shall get up on the dining table and scream!” Fortunately for all of London society, Cassie had not yet made her come-out. She was the sort much more likely to be noticed.

“Come along, girls,” their mother called back from halfway down the grand stairway. Her penetrating voice sounded artificially bright.

Now in the passageway leading to the stairs, Mariah sighed again and gave her younger sister a warning look. “Behave, Cassie, or mother will never forgive you.” Nor will I, she thought as they descended behind the others. Wasn’t the evening already in danger of becoming a disaster? Was she the only one aware of it? And why should she care so much? That was a different mystery.

* * *

In the dining room, everyone else had taken places at the table by the time she and Cassie straggled in. With its soft green walls and white decorative plasterwork, the room always struck Mariah as rather like a Wedgwood box turned outside in. She still pondered why sylph-like Grecian figures who looked half-starved were appropriate décor in a dining room while plump cherubs and a bounty of carved plaster fruit graced the drawing room instead.

A massive pier glass and gilded side table to match it occupied the center of one long wall, between windows draped in heavy white satin. Mariah’s mother was motioning her toward the one remaining seat that faced this—oh, Lord, next to the marquess. Rorie was on his other side. The room’s heavily ornamented chimney piece and hearth occupied the center of the opposite wall, which Cassie would face from the seat opposite Mariah. Overhead an impressive twenty-four light chandelier glittered with dozens of crystal pendants, shining down softly upon a groaning table loaded with the Parburys’ best silver.

The baron stood by his chair at the head of the gleaming table with their mother at the opposite end. William and the marquess were placed at center on either side, where daughters of the house could flank them right and left. Another obvious strategy! There were only eight at table for the meal—just family and the guest of honor. Mariah gave thanks that at least her mother had refrained from inviting half of the Beau Monde to join them simply to witness Lord Milbourne’s presence there.

His attendance did not strike Mariah as so very remarkable, despite her mother’s pride in the accomplishment. Young Reinhart Maycott had been sent from India, where he’d been raised, to attend Harrow, where he and William had become friends. While Maycott had gone on to the East India College in Hertfordshire and William to Cambridge, the two had managed to maintain their friendship, bridging time and even the thousands of miles between England and India that eventually separated them. The son of a younger son, Mr. Maycott, now Lord Milbourne, had only recently—and quite unexpectedly—come into his grandfather’s title. He had returned to England barely six weeks ago and had been using his time since then to make arrangements and settle into his new role.

What must it be like to be suddenly thrust back into England after spending most of one’s life in a foreign land? Mariah supposed it might have been lonely, if the marquess had been anyone else. But of course, the ton had embraced him in an instant—rather, besieged him like bees after honey. Who could resist the heady combination of high rank and vastly deep pockets in such a wondrously handsome package? Perhaps “magnificent” was the proper word for him, after all.

“Please, do let us all sit down,” said Lady Parbury, startling Mariah out of her thoughts.

Glancing around guiltily, she realized the others had sat down. Only she and Lord Milbourne were still standing as he politely waited for her to take the seat beside him. As she dropped into it hastily, she caught his image reflected in the pier glass on the wall opposite them. It would so happen that both of them should have seats facing it! How would she keep from stealing glances at him in it all through the meal?

She looked away quickly, mortified, as she realized he was returning her gaze. With one eyebrow raised and a half-smile curving his lips, he looked bemused. By her. Dear Lord, it was not fair that he should be so attractive! She swallowed. If she did not get herself in hand this meal might not be such an improvement over the previous time as she had hoped!

Focusing on the meal helped to restore her spirit. Tantalizing, exotic aromas that had never graced the Parbury’s kitchen teased her nose, and the table was crowded with twice the usual number of covers. There had been a bit of commotion when the marquess had first arrived, and now Mariah guessed the reason. Curiosity and delight overcame her self-consciousness.

“It is a bit of a departure from the usual way of doing things, but Lord Milbourne has brought with him a number of dishes prepared by his own cook to supplement our table tonight,” her mother announced, confirming Mariah’s thought. “I must leave it to him to direct us and explain things.” The tight smile on Lady Parbury’s face concealed what Mariah knew must be considerable chagrin. What a scene there had probably been in the kitchen!

“I thought you might enjoy the opportunity to sample some of the native fare I am accustomed to eating in India,” the marquess said. His voice rumbled deep and resonant and touched a chord somewhere inside Mariah, causing a tiny ripple of pleasure to run through her, almost as if he had physically touched her.

Ridiculous! She must stop this. Were the rich aromas going to her head? Or was it just the proximity now that she was seated right beside him? She was responding to him like the worst moonstruck ninny. If that became obvious to their guest, it would be every bit as embarrassing as if he overheard the comments whispered behind his back or realized the lack of interest her sisters had in his stories. But Mariah was interested. She sat up a little straighter in her chair.

“What a novel idea, Lord Milbourne!” her father said diplomatically. “I’m certain we should all be delighted to taste what you have brought.” Normally taciturn, Lord Parbury commanded everyone’s attention when he spoke, since it happened so rarely. He directed a look at Mariah’s sisters that could only be interpreted as an order.

Watching the interactions around the table, Mariah witnessed a quick smirk pass between her brother and the marquess. Her suspicions grew. Was this all a show on purpose? Had they planned all of this in advance? What devils! Yet, how like William. At the ripe age of twenty-and-seven he still had not outgrown his penchant for mischief.

Perhaps it was cruel to put Lady Parbury through such paces, but Mariah could not help thinking that perhaps her mother had earned it. The fuss she was making over the marquess since his elevation to the title and return to England was a marked contrast to the decided lack of interest she had shown in the years when he, lacking expectations and tied to India, had been friends with William at school. Mariah and her sisters had never even met him then. Was that by design? A younger version of him must still have been sinfully handsome.

At any rate, if his behavior today was all intended as a prank, she could appreciate the spirit of the joke. She would have to ask William later. She glanced at the candlelit tableau reflected in the pier glass and smiled.

“What I have brought you is simply a representative sampling of typical dishes, some from the south of India, some from the north,” the marquess was saying. Mariah could mark no sign of the fleeting smirk from moments before—indeed, Lord Milbourne appeared gracious and perfectly sincere.

“In India we might begin the meal with some sweets, but since all this is intended merely as a prelude to the fine dinner your kitchen has created for us, Lord and Lady Parbury, the order in which the dishes are tasted does not really matter. We have here some lamb biryani, chicken tandoori, and a goat curry, which are commonly eaten among the land-owning classes.”

As he nodded and pointed to the individual dishes, the footmen on either side of the table removed the gleaming silver covers, releasing waves of deliciously spicy steam. Mariah loved the way the exotic names rolled off his tongue so easily. The sound of them combined with the unfamiliar scents excited her imagination and carried her to far off places.

Cassie, however, seated across from her, brought her crashing back to the reality of the dinner table by kicking her under the table. She mouthed “goat curry?” with a grimace clearly combining disbelief and disgust.

Mariah frowned at her severely. What if the marquess happened to notice Cassie’s reaction? She prayed that Rorie, seated on the other side of him, was doing her best to occupy the man’s attention. After all, that was precisely what their mother intended.

“There are a number of side dishes and condiments that I suggest you try along with these,” Lord Milbourne continued smoothly. He gestured toward the different dishes. “Several chutneys, and rice. There are three types of wheat bread in that silver basket—you’ll find them very different, I think, especially the poori.”

He stopped and looked around the table. Mariah thanked the stars that Cassie wasn’t making a face just then! “Who will be the first to try a taste?”

Silence. Apparently everyone was waiting for someone else to speak first. The moment dragged on painfully. Mariah could not believe that neither of her parents—or even William—showed the courage or the courtesy to leap into the breach.

“I will try some of the goat curry,” she said clearly, causing everyone at the table to look at her. Oh, dear. Well, no doubt she had astonished them. But someone had to go first! She smiled bravely and cast a challenging glance at Cassie. Then her gaze strayed to the pier glass, where she caught Lord Milbourne gazing at her with that amused expression on his face again. Was it possible for one’s knees to grow weak while sitting? Resolutely she picked up her spoon and turned to him. “I must assume you recommend it?”

“Yes, of course,” he answered, smiling openly now. His smile seemed to catch at her heart. It softened his face into a gentler, more youthful visage.

“I will try that and then a bit of everything,” Mariah said, resolutely ignoring that enchanting smile, quite pleased with her show of courage. She noticed how large and strong his hands looked as he spooned some rice onto her plate. Then he passed the curry dish to her. It smelled divinely of cloves and pepper, and looked like a thick beef stew. She took a heaping spoonful.

Rorie asked for a taste then (of course she remembered then not to let the focus of attention shift!), and other voices spoke up after her. Mariah was free to experience the goat curry quite privately. Eager to savor the anticipated new taste, she took a large mouthful and held it on her tongue.

Hellfire! Her mouth was burning up! Tears sprang into her eyes and she barely managed not to spit. Chewing for only a moment and then choking down the food in a great gulp to get it off her tongue, she merely spread the burning sensation down into her throat. Gasping quietly, she reached for her wine glass.

A large, strong hand intercepted hers. Her skin tingled where his fingers brushed it. “I think you may have taken a bit too much at once,” Lord Milbourne said softly. “Here, let me give you some of the raita—it is made from soothing cucumber and yogurt and will help you more than the wine.”

The moment felt inexplicably intimate. Mariah nodded, unable to reply in words. How had he noticed? Apparently Rorie was not holding his attention. She hadn’t heard much conversation between them. He released her hand and spooned some of the creamy pale condiment onto her plate, obviously unaware that his touch had set her hand on fire, too. All of the others were looking at her again, and she felt like the world’s worst fool.

“I should have cautioned you all,” the marquess said apologetically. “The dishes are very spicy to a palate unused to them. Be sure to take a bite of rice or bread, or one of the cooling condiments, in between very small tastes, to begin.” He hesitated, turning his amber gaze upon her again as if to make certain she was all right. “I should have been watching you.”

What did he mean? She thought somehow he must have been watching her, for how else would he have noticed her distress? And if indeed he had been, what did that signify? At any rate, such gracious concern coming from him nearly took her breath away. “Not at all, sir,” she finally managed to choke out, trying not to be struck completely spellbound by his eyes. “Thank you. Apparently I should have been less eager.” Oh, in so many ways!

The rest of the meal proceeded less eventfully. It seemed that all of the company except Mariah were taking infinitesimal bites and generally trying to create an impression of enthusiasm without actually having to eat very much of the Indian food. Hopeless! However, Mariah found that she liked it, once she mastered the proper approach. After the exotic, almost erotic tastes and textures of those dishes, the English roast beef and fresh perch her mother had so carefully ordered to honor the marquess tasted very bland indeed.

After the food provided a source for conversation, the talk resumed in much the same manner as it had before dinner. Mariah noticed the marquess avoided certain topics, despite a wealth of Indian stories. He didn’t talk about his family. He never said how he came to take the job he’d had in Lampur, what exactly he did there, or why he’d left the East India Company.

Lady Parbury made valiant attempts to direct the conversation into more mundane channels. “Do you go to Lady Summersley’s ball on Friday next, Lord Milbourne?”

“Yes.” He smiled sweetly and took another bite of roasted beef.

The baroness shifted in her seat and tried again. “Have you made plans yet to visit your estate in Sussex?”

“Not yet.”

Mariah thought a shadow passed over his face, but perhaps she imagined it. Her mother tried again.

“You have applied for vouchers for Almack’s, have you not? You must have already met the patronesses.”

“Yes, I have.” No further comment. He pretended to be busy with his food.

Clearly topics other than India did not engage him. Or, was he purposely uncooperative? Wasn’t Will smiling a bit more broadly than might be appropriate? Lady Parbury glanced at the baron, but of course there was no help to be had there.

Finally Mariah risked censure in an effort to help. “Do not the various religions of the Hindustan place restrictions on what their followers may eat, Lord Milbourne? Perhaps you could explain to us how these dishes we have been eating relate to those practices.”

This sally opened up some successful conversation, but her mother frowned at her so severely, she dutifully sank back into the role of frustrated observer for the rest of the meal. Was it her fault if Rorie could not think of anything to say to engage the man in conversation?

* * *

After dinner the ladies and the men separated, according to the usual custom. Upstairs in the drawing room supervised by ceiling cherubs, Mariah wished she could be an invisible eavesdropper in the library below, taking in the enlightened conversation she imagined she was missing between Lord Milbourne and her father and brother. Why was it that women were not expected to be interested in the same things that interested men? Lord Milbourne could tell her so much! A great deal of what she’d read in books and newspaper accounts about the Hindustan seemed too fantastic to believe. He would know what was true.

Her interest had nothing to do with the striking golden gaze of his eyes.

Meanwhile, Lady Parbury paced about and fussed over the fate of her dinner party. “Can you imagine having the gall to bring your own food when invited to dinner? Cook was horribly insulted! What I went through to calm her down, you can hardly imagine. And such food! Why, Lady Eggleston served a curry at her dinner for Lord Bromfield last month and it was nothing like what we ate tonight!”

“More to do with her cook than the curry,” Georgiana murmured so that only Mariah could hear.

Mariah chuckled. Georgie, the quietest of the sisters and the other “middle” one, was the sister to whom she felt closest. They were only a year apart in age and often shared a similar perspective, even if Georgie did not frequently voice hers. At the moment, Georgie’s was a voice of reason in a room singularly lacking in that commodity.

“Mama, do consider,” she said calmly, turning to their mother with a consoling tone. “Indian dishes are becoming all the rage. You are the first to have had an introduction to these truly authentic ones, prepared by the marquess’s own Hindustani cook! You will be the envy of everyone when they find out. Lord Milbourne has quite honored you, I think.”

Mariah had to admire Georgie’s strategy—it was the perfect way to soothe their mother’s irritation.

Cassie joined in the effort to console the baroness. “Just think, mama. People will seek you out, pestering you for descriptions of what the food was like, so their cooks may attempt to copy it. Our next At Home will be thronged—you’ll see!”

As their flustered mother thought this over, Aurora left her seat and approached Mariah. Her terse “A word with you, sister, if I might?” confirmed that she too was unhappy, in case Mariah had any doubts.

Was it not enough to have to unruffle their mother without having to soothe Rorie, as well? Mariah walked over to the fireplace out of earshot of the others, her hands clenched into tight fists at the end of arms held rigidly at her sides.

Rorie followed, a scowl distorting her pretty face. “Mariah, I must insist that you stop drawing Lord Milbourne’s attention! Mama and Papa have made it very clear that as I am the eldest they expect me to make an attempt to fix the man’s interest. They think I might have an advantage over at least some of the others setting their caps for him, by virtue of being William’s sister.”

Mariah’s patience was wearing thin. “I am well aware of Mama’s plan, Rorie. Can it be any more obvious? And I assure you that I have not been attempting to draw his interest away from you. Apart from those few moments at dinner, I quite believe that no one except Mama has been paying any more attention to me than usual, least of all him. You need not worry.”

Aurora did not look entirely convinced, but Mariah was. “Could you possibly think that I, of all people, would try to compete against you?” She had no doubt that a magnificent man like Lord Milbourne would be smitten with Rorie, the family’s acknowledged beauty, if he were to take interest in any of the Parbury sisters at all. Rorie’s lovely blue eyes and flawless skin accompanied a classic straight nose that did not turn up at the end even slightly, as Mariah’s did. It was highly unlikely that anyone would ever consider Mariah’s curly mouse-brown hair and pale gray eyes to be striking.

“Perhaps you should worry less about me and work harder to engage him yourself,” she added, crossing her arms and allowing a little of her irritation to seep out. “I have only been trying to be polite and uphold our family’s honor. The rest of you have been behaving abominably! If you want to attract his interest, Rorie, it seems to me you need to show some interest!”

Rorie wilted a little. “He goes on at such length about the Hindustan. That is all behind him now! He should be looking to his future instead. I would find that far more interesting.”

“Yes, you and everyone else in London, I suspect. The poor fellow may not have had enough time yet to look forward, Rorie. His new life has been thrust upon him so unexpectedly. Did you ever stop to think that he isn’t used to London, and may still have a great deal of adjusting to do?”

“Well, he needs to learn how to converse in polite company.”

Mariah was not about to share her suspicions that Lord Milbourne and William might have schemed to behave for the evening as they did quite on purpose. Instead, she said, “Do not blame me for being willing to listen. I find his knowledge and experiences so interesting. How can you not think so? Have you no curiosity about other parts of the world?”

Rorie shook her head.

Mariah rolled her eyes. One might believe we are not actually sisters. How can we be so different? Aloud she said, “William told me Lord Milbourne’s house is filled with priceless treasures he brought back with him from Lampur and other places. Carved filigree screens and art pieces set with gold and jewels. Would you not give anything to see them? I would!”

“If Mama has her way, she would have me setting up my nursery among them,” Rorie answered morosely. She shuddered. “They are heathen things, Mariah, made in a savage country. It does not seem proper for you to take such an interest in them. Beware.”

Rorie could be amazingly narrow-minded at times. Was it really so surprising that, despite her beauty, she was still unmarried at two-and-twenty years? Not a good match for the marquess at all. Mariah shrugged off the warning. “It sounds as though you are not convinced you should go along with Mama’s wishes.”

Rorie cast a glance towards their mother, still being soothed by Georgie and Cassie. “How could I mind being married to a wealthy, handsome marquess?” she replied, but Mariah thought it sounded now as if Rorie was trying to convince herself.

They returned to their seats to find their mother looking a good deal more cheerful.

“We had better ring for Wilkins and James to come and set up the tables for whist,” Lady Parbury said, rallying. “Girls, you do suppose the marquess would play whist?”

“Really, Mama,” Mariah answered. “Whyever would he not? You act as if he is a barbarian, and Hindustan the end of civilization. ’Tis no such thing!”

But her mother was not paying attention, already distracted by the need to fuss with one of Rorie’s sleeves.

* * *

Below them in the library, the men had finished a first round of port. Conversation had ranged from the social necessities required of a man in London to Ren’s opinion of Lord Moira, the current Governor-General in India, and even whether Ren had ever met the Mughal emperor, Akbar Shah the Second. Will had been helpful, steering the conversation away from controversy several times. Ren had also managed to dance around several of Lord Parbury’s more probing questions about government or East India Company policies, offering vague replies or going off on tangents and never quite returning to what had been asked.

As they set down their empty glasses, Lord Parbury stood up, which of course brought Ren and William to their feet as well. “Will you excuse me for a few moments?” the baron asked. “I have a particularly fine brandy in my study I’d like to offer you. ’Tis easier to go and get it myself than to wait for Bennett to come and wait again while he carries out my request.”

The moment his father left the room, poor William approached Ren, his brows drawn together and his hand outstretched. “Are we still on speaking terms? I have much to apologize for.”

Ren shot him a puzzled glance. “Have you? I’ve no idea what. Of course we are still speaking.”

“I would never have pressed you to come if I had realized quite how awful it was going to be. I cannot believe that my father suggested you should visit his tailor! And a certain amount of ignorant behavior may be expected from my sisters, but my mother! She is beyond too much.”

Ren chuckled. “I have endured far more difficult evenings. I’ve been trying my best to disenchant them. I cannot shun society entirely, much as I might wish to, and I have, after all, exacted a small amount of retribution. Do you not think I’ve been sufficiently boorish?”

“Wearisome to a fine degree. But I’m not convinced now that it will be enough to protect you,” Will replied, shoulders sagging.

“I might have met with more success if your sister Mariah had not been so interested in everything.” Her interest had seemed sincere, and she had very nearly thrown him off his chosen path. He had needed to remind himself several times why he was behaving badly.

“You’ve no idea,” Will said. “She is very restrained tonight, thanks to our mother’s determination. Mariah’s curiosity can be quite formidable.”

“Not always a bad thing in a female, I think,” Ren answered. However, the fact that Mariah intrigued him was not a good thing, to his mind, and also was not one he wanted Will to know. Best to move the conversation away from her and back to safer topics.

“Your father is correct that I need better tailoring, and your mother is suffering from a delusion that will be shared by many another hope-filled mama during the months ahead. Eventually they will all have to accept that I do not intend to marry. I will become an eccentric old bachelor.”

William slapped his shoulder. “You are already accounted as eccentric, my friend! Who refurbishes their house to look like a Hindu palace? But it is my impression that such women will never give up, regardless of how you behave or how old you become. Did my mother seem discouraged? No. You could be the worst devil you can imagine and they would still be chasing after you. You have rank and fortune, now. That’s all it takes. I think the only protection may be to find someone you might tolerate and get leg-shackled.”

Ren’s stomach churned at thought of marrying again, especially without love. He braced for the searing sense of loss that always battered him at such moments.

“Will, I was married, in India.” He could not go through it again. Mary’s fine features floated before him, followed by the brilliant smile of Anjana, the Indian woman he had loved afterwards. As he had taught himself to do, he closed his eyes for a moment and visualized closing shutters over their images, the only way he had found to keep his haunting memories at bay.

Will’s shock forced him back a step. “I had no idea! I’m sorry. What happened?”

“Leave it to say I lost her. And also another woman I loved after her. I am done.”

Ren took his seat again, hoping Will would understand not to pursue the details. Would knowing he was a widower make any difference to people here? He supposed not. But he had no wish to share his life with someone he did not care for, and no wish to bring into it someone he might care for. Death seemed to surround him. He doubted he could survive the pain if he had to suffer another loss of someone he loved. There had been too many deaths.

Resuming his own seat, Will asked, “What becomes of your line and the title if you never do that duty?”

It was a fair question, one Ren had also posed. “The lawyers explained that. There’s a cousin in a family branch who stands currently as my heir. No doubt he’s still as astonished at the change in his fortunes as I am! He’s welcome to it all, when the time comes. I believe he even has a son already.”

Will’s face clearly reflected shock. Ren understood it. While sympathetic and also in no hurry to wed, at heart Will was still as conventional as the rest of his family—well, except for Miss Mariah, perhaps. But he had no chance to say anything more to Ren, as Lord Parbury returned to the room bearing his much-prized brandy.

* * *

When the men rejoined the ladies in the drawing room upstairs, tables were already set up for playing cards. Mariah thought the marquess looked reluctant when Lady Parbury suggested whist. Would he refuse?

“Oh,” he said, with a look of disappointment that seemed genuine. “I had thought perhaps the young ladies would offer us some music.” He looked pointedly at the pianoforte in the far corner of the room. “Surely they play?”

His preference matched Mariah’s own. But her mother acted as if she had not even heard him. “Allow me to seat you at this table, my lord, and here’s Aurora to be your partner. Lord Parbury and I will play against you.”

He might have insisted—especially if he was purposely trying to be an irksome guest. Instead, when the baroness ignored him, he politely let it go.

Impeccable manners, now. Unfortunate. Was she wrong about the scheme she thought she had detected? Mariah wondered what his musical tastes and talents might be. Did he play an instrument? Sing? And what did Indian music sound like? That was not something one could learn from a book. But she knew exactly why her mother had pretended not to hear. Rorie’s musical talents did not compare well against those of her younger sisters. Georgie, Mariah and Cassie must not outshine Aurora on this important evening!

Really, Mariah thought, her mother was merciless.

Mariah played horridly with William and her other two sisters, for her mind was not on the game. She could not keep her attention away from the next table, where Rorie and her mother chattered valiantly in the face of Lord Parbury’s usual silence and what Mariah thought was a notable lack of encouragement from the marquess.

Lord, the poor man must be bored to tears! Well, perhaps not to tears. What did men become bored to the point of? The signs were unmistakable, from his foot tapping beneath the table to the fingers he could not stop from occasionally drumming on the tabletop. If his days were filled with nothing but the new affairs of his inheritance and such inane social travesties as this, how miserable he must be!

She wondered if he missed India. Did he feel homesickness for his life in Lampur? The only time he brightened up was when Lady Parbury asked about the work he was having done on his house in Grosvenor Square. Almost as if he couldn’t stop himself, he launched into a spell-binding description of cave temples in Western India and various rajas’ palaces whose interiors were influencing his renovations.

Who would not want to see such a sight? She did. She wanted to so much it surprised her. It sounded as if he was attempting to bring India to London. It was also the most personal thing he had divulged all evening.

“Mariah? Your play,” said William.

Bother! She barely looked at her cards before she selected one to place on the table. Surely the marquess would hold their family in the greatest contempt after such a painful evening. What would that do for Rorie’s chances? Not that Mariah thought those two would suit, but a certain amount of family loyalty and pride was involved in her wanting Rorie to have a fair chance. Every other marriage-seeking young lady with a titled background would no doubt be making a play for the poor man.

Cannot you rescue your friend? Mariah wanted to shout at her brother. Short of kicking William under the table, she didn’t know how to get her message across.

“Mariah, you’ve just led trumps,” wailed Cassie in great annoyance. “You are not paying the slightest attention! Why cannot Georgie be my partner instead of you?”

Why could not Rorie and Mama ask the marquess something intelligent? Mariah’s head was full of questions she’d like to ask, but doing so in front of them would be borrowing trouble. She had already been warned. Mama was constantly reminding her that she must hide her addiction to books—that men did not like Bluestockings. And Rorie already seemed to think Mariah was trying to fix Lord Milbourne’s interest, when of course it was only his knowledge she wanted! Most certainly that was all.

“I apologize, Cassie,” she said, glad her turn was over for the moment.

As Georgie perused her cards before making the next play, Mariah tried to catch William’s eye. When finally she did, she grimaced and rolled her eyes towards the other table. William tightened his lips and shrugged, almost imperceptibly.

So, he does realize. There was small comfort in that—he clearly intended to do nothing. If he and the marquess had indeed conspired together, perhaps they deserved every resulting awkward moment. She looked at Georgiana, who frowned at her cards with a tiny wrinkle of concentration between her brows. Georgie was always hard to read. She could be intentionally keeping her mind off the situation, or she could be trying hard to think of some remedy, as Mariah was.

Could one of them pretend to be taken ill suddenly? No. That might successfully break up the party, but the marquess might think it a reflection upon his food! And if Mariah did it, she might again be accused of trying to draw attention. Was there nothing anyone could do?

Just when Mariah thought she could stand to see him suffer no more, Bennett appeared bearing a note on a silver tray and approached Lady Parbury, interrupting the cardplay. The baroness nodded and Bennett delivered the note to the marquess.

Mariah watched him read it, his face darkening with what appeared to be genuine concern.

“Lord and Lady Parbury, please forgive me,” he said, folding the note and tucking it into his waistcoat. He pushed back his chair and rose in a single, fluid motion. “I must depart at once—something as happened at my home that requires my urgent attention. My coachman is waiting. I regret that I must not even stay to finish this hand.”

Was it a true emergency, or a conveniently arranged escape? How much of the evening had been a sham, designed by him and William? Mariah only knew that he was leaving, and that despite her wish to spare him just moments earlier, now her heart was sinking in dismay.

~ * * * ~

Chapter Two

Ren’s heart had started to pound even as he unfolded the note. What now? As welcome as the interruption was, he braced for whatever this new problem might be. Unexplained happenings had plagued his house in Grosvenor Square from the time of his arrival in London.

He scanned the contents quickly—there was indeed a crisis. Ranee, the Asian cheetah he had raised as a pet and brought from India along with a handful of loyal servants, had escaped from the confines of his house. Ren hoped the big cat was no further away than the back garden, but if she chose to leave that walled enclosure, the incident could quickly escalate into a true disaster.

Making his apologies, he pushed back from the table and stood, thinking quickly as he refolded the note and stuffed it into his waistcoat. Best that his hosts should not know. The quieter he could keep this incident, the better. Racing off would certainly cap an evening full of intentionally rude behavior on his part, but it would also draw questions and unwanted attention to the crisis. Despite the urge to hurry, he should take his leave calmly, and hope for speed once he reached his waiting carriage.

He bowed to Lord Parbury, breaking up the party as everyone abandoned their cards and rose for his farewells.

His greatest concern was that some harm might befall Ranee. Loose in the city streets the big cat might be terrified and forget all her training. He could imagine her crushed under the wheels of a dray or the hooves of panicked horses, or shot by some fearful citizen. But even without such dire results, her escape was a problem that could cause considerable difficulty among his neighbors should they learn of it.

“I do hope it is nothing too serious,” Lady Parbury said, concern etched on her features. She raised an eyebrow, no doubt expecting him to offer more explanation.

“My hope as well, my lady. I thank you for your gracious hospitality, as well as your concern.” Despite his hurry, he just couldn’t continue the charade of rudeness. William’s family had meant well, after all. They had been kind to invite him, and until this moment, deep down he had not been altogether sorry that he had come. He bowed quickly over her hand, and made his bows to her daughters, who each made a pretty curtsey.

Mariah was last in the line of them, and he was aware of her gaze following his every motion. What was going through her mind? When he came to her in turn, she curtseyed gracefully and sincerely echoed the sentiments of everyone else, hoping that the trouble was would not prove too serious.

“Thank you,” he replied soberly, but then he smiled. He couldn’t seem to help it. “As for you, Miss Parbury, enthusiasm becomes you. Just be cautious of where it leads you!”

Her eyes, more silver than gray, now that he really looked into them, lit with surprise. Was she blushing?

“I enjoyed the food you brought. Very much. And also all your stories, Lord Milbourne.” She was nearly stammering. “Priests, tapers, temples, swim before my very sight,” she quoted, rushing out the words.

Good heavens. Of all the quotes! “You are familiar with Alexander Pope? Well, well.”

Now she was blushing for certain, no faint tinge of pink but a deep rush of rose that flooded her cheeks. As well she might, for he knew that poem, and while that line might seem appropriate, the rest of the verse was most definitely not. The poem was about lovers, not India.

What a funny little blue-stocking she was! Her mother had been looking daggers at her for most of the evening. Did they think he wouldn’t notice? He couldn’t help wondering how diverting the time might have been if she had been paired with him instead of her sister and allowed the free rein of her tongue.

“Pray do not get her started,” Will interrupted, looking a trifle embarrassed himself. “I’ll walk down with you, old man.”

Ren bowed to her, and then he and her brother began to move away. She sidestepped toward the door of the room, following them with a hand reached out, almost as if she wanted to grasp his arm and stop him.

“Is it true that they ride on elephants to go hunting?” Even distracted by his worries, Ren thought he detected a trace of desperation in her voice.

“Hush, Mariah! Let the man take his leave,” William said. “Ren, just ignore her.”

Spoken just like a brother. Ren felt another stab to his heart. How often had he done the same to his own younger sister? And now regretted it every day, missing her. How often did the Parburys ignore Miss Mariah? He would not do so, no matter how urgently he needed to leave.

He reached for her small hand and as awareness buzzed through him, brushed a chaste kiss across her fingers. She was already blushing. Did his touch unsettle her more? The idea made him smile more, as if some devil drove him. Touching her certainly affected him. He recognized that, but still he was not prepared for the sense of connection that rocked him when he looked again into those expressive eyes. Dangerous.

To cover his reaction, he winked and quickly released her hand. “Sometimes they do.” Had she felt a connection, too? She looked unduly flustered. “It depends entirely upon what they are hunting.”

With a parting smile, he ducked out of the room with Will right behind him.

The moment they were out of the drawing room, Will spoke up.

“Shall I come with you? Can I help?”

Of course his kind-hearted friend would offer without even knowing the trouble. Ren owed him the explanation that he’d withheld from the rest of the Parburys. As their footsteps echoed along the passage toward the staircase, he quickly outlined the contents of the note.

“Thank you for offering to help,” he finished, “but I must refuse. Please take this as no slight upon your courage, my friend, or your good intentions either. Even though you and Ranee have met, you are not yet a familiar person to her. She is tame, but cheetahs can be unpredictable if upset. Bringing along a stranger under these circumstances could aggravate the situation.”

Once he had ensured Will’s discretion and bid him farewell at the bottom of the stairway, Ren fairly flew out to his waiting carriage, grabbing his hat, stick and gloves from the family’s startled footman at the door. There was no more time to waste. He nodded to his coachman as he climbed in. “Home, as fast as you can, Ahmed.” His loyal man complied, starting the horses even before Ren was quite settled on the leather squabs inside.

* * *

In the Parburys’ drawing room, the ladies chose to retire, leaving the baron to his study and the servants to clean up. Lady Parbury declared she had endured quite enough for one evening. Mariah went to her own room, where her sister Georgina joined her.

“Dear Lord, Georgie! Has anyone ever made such a fool of themselves as I did?” Mariah flopped onto the white coverlet on her bed and buried her face in her pillow, rather wishing that she could be alone to sort out her feelings, or at least to nurse her misery.

“I’m quite certain the answer to that is yes—many people, and much worse than you.” Georgie settled into the wing chair near the hearth. “But you did act strangely. What in heaven’s name were you thinking?”

Mariah turned her head so she could speak. “I only wanted to make certain that Lord Milbourne did not leave without knowing at least one person in the house had enjoyed his glorious stories.” It had seemed desperately important, but she wouldn’t share that bit. “I cannot believe I quoted that poem to him—I don’t know what came over me. It just blurted out! And he clearly knew the reference.” She could feel the blush starting again.

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