The Wicked Marquis - Blackhaven Brides, Book 5
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to Blackhaven, where the great and the bad of visiting Regency society turn local life upside down...
The lady meets her match - and he's hopelessly ineligible.
Poverty stricken marquis, Lord Tamar, is regarded in Blackhaven as an amiable eccentric and a gifted painter, rather than as a wicked man. But Tamar has secrets that he dare not reveal to anyone, let alone to the delightful Lady Serena, the Earl of Braithwaite's sister, who suddenly lights up his world.
To Serena, fed up with London etiquette and sent home to her family castle in disgrace after her engagement is broken, the fascinating Tamar is a breath of fresh air. Accepting his help with the mystery of the strange barrels in the castle cellar, she is soon in the midst of danger involving smugglers and spies and a friend's broken heart.
But it is her own heart which is in most danger, as she falls swiftly and desperately in love. And neither her family nor Tamar himself would ever countenance a marriage between them. Moreover, the marquis turns out to have committed a far more shocking crime than mere poverty.
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"I loved this book and think it’s the best in the series."
"What a great book... witty and fun... Loved it, can’t wait for the next."
"I continue to be amazed by Mary Lancaster's writing talent! ...one of those special books that you can't wait to read all over again, in order to savor the beauty and the sweetness of it!"
"A great addition to this series, a sweet, romantic story full of intrigue...and divine artists who are just to nice and lovable to be true...Recommended Read!"
"A Lovely Romance in Blackhaven" - Amazon reviews
Lady Serena waltzed into the schoolroom. Finding herself in a beam of bright sunshine, she halted and winked at her younger sisters. For their entertainment, she created bird-shapes with her hands that reflected on the opposite wall. Maria grinned, Alice chortled, and Helen actually sprang to her feet in instant desire to make shapes of her own.
Miss Grey swung around on Serena, clearly irritated.
“I know, I know,” Serena exclaimed, throwing up her hands in submission. “I’m sorry, I’ll go,”
She was sorry, too, for she rather liked Miss Grey, who was quite young with twinkling eyes, and not at all like the governesses she and her older sister Frances had endured. Hastily, she left the room, ignoring Helen’s pout of disappointment. Clearly, she’d made Miss Grey’s job just a little harder today.
Sighing, she walked restlessly from the schoolroom along the passage to the long gallery and from there, into the large drawing room, where she opened the lid of the pianoforte and spread her fingers on the keys.
Without making a sound, she let her hands slide off into her lap. She didn’t really want to play. She wanted to run.
In truth, she still felt aggrieved. She was being punished for the faithlessness of Sir Arthur Maynard, to whom she’d been engaged until very recently, when after several weeks of sulking and petulance, he finally insisted she break off the engagement. The ending of the betrothal everyone had been so proud of had actually come as a surprising relief to Serena.
Until her mother and brother united in anger and sent her home to Braithwaite Castle in disgrace—with the children and their governess, to add insult to injury. Not that it wasn’t fun spending more time than usual with her younger sisters, but they had plans and lessons and routines. Serena didn’t. And she was bored.
Her eyes strayed to the window. She didn’t normally see the castle grounds in the autumn, and the rich reds and golds were rather beautiful, especially in the afternoon sunshine.
Wishing she could take a walk outside, she rose, just as a figure in the garden below caught her attention. She thought, at first, he must be a new gardener, for he wore a long, disreputable old coat and carried a satchel over his shoulder as well as something large under his arm. But on closer inspection, his burdens didn’t look much like tools of any kind. Still, he must have had some purpose here, for he didn’t appear remotely furtive as he strolled along the path toward the main part of the castle. In fact, he was whistling. She could hear the faint strains of his merry tune drifting upward and see the purse of his lips as he raised his head and looked about.
Serena’s heartbeat quickened with interest, not so much at his undeniable good looks, but because he had one of the most fascinating faces she had ever seen. Framed by too-long, wild black hair, his features were dramatic—a long, slightly hooked nose, thick eyebrows, full lips—and his expression somehow at once unworldly and sardonic.
He spun around and stopped whistling. When she next glimpsed his face, it seemed vaguely dissatisfied, though with what she couldn’t tell. In any case, he strode on again, veering off the path to the side door and heading toward the orchard instead.
Intrigued, Serena seized her shawl from the back of an armchair and made her way outside. She had always known she would never keep to her mother’s strictures not to step out of doors, even in the castle grounds, without company. Especially when the company was restricted to her sisters, Miss Grey, or Mrs. Gaskell the housekeeper. No old friends from Blackhaven were permitted. It was a ridiculous requirement, and bad for her health, as even the countess her mother would agree once she had stopped being so angry.
In fact, it would be bad for everyone else, too, for being so trapped was already making Serena crazy and disruptive. So, she would go and disrupt this new employee instead, whoever he was and whatever he did. That would pass ten minutes or so. More, if he proved to be as interesting as he looked.
She passed a maid in the passageway that led to the orchard-facing side door. The girl only curtseyed. So at least the servants weren’t aware of her humiliating restrictions.
Fresh air hit her with a bolt of joy. After a week of being cooped up in a travelling coach, and more than half of another spent inside the castle, it was wonderful to be outside, reveling in the sharpness of the air and the warmth of the sunshine on her face.
She all but skipped along the path to the orchard, forgetting what and who had tempted her outside in the first place. Once through the orchard door, she closed it and ran full tilt up the hill. She whirled around the biggest apple tree and spread her arms out to rush back down the hill, just as she’d used to with Frances and Gervaise when they were children.
Then, breathless and much happier, she rearranged her shawl and walked more sedately along the sun-dappled path through the trees toward the top gate from where she could reach the woods.
“Stop!” a voice commanded, freezing her instantly. “Don’t move.”
“Why ever not?” she demanded, her mind flitting around possible dangers like snakes, tree branches about to fall, and fox traps left where they shouldn’t be.
“Just hold very still,” the same, deep male voice said gently, as though he were speaking to a startled horse. But she could hear the quick tread and rustle of his approaching footsteps. Then he halted.
Serena waited. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Committing this to memory,” he said, and began to move again.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as he came closer. He brushed past, his face turned toward her and came to a halt once more in front of her.
His black hair gleamed in the sunlight. His gaze was rivetted to her face, his expression rapt, a faint, fascinating smile curving his lips. The interesting employee who’d first drawn her outside.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “Do you work here?”
“I try to,” he replied. “Do you?”
“Not exactly.” He didn’t know who she was. Well, she’d dressed in her oldest, most comfortable dress, discovered with delight at the back of her wardrobe, and she didn’t really look like the daughter and sister of earls. For some reason, such anonymity felt truly liberating.
In fact, he didn’t seem remotely interested in names. Instead, he continued walking around her.
“This is marvelous,” he enthused. “And the light will never be quite like this again. No!” He seized her shoulder when she started to turn, shocking her into awareness. “Don’t move a muscle.”
Half-amused, half-annoyed, she subsided, and he released her to dash back the way he’d come. She heard the swishing of tree branches, the squeak of hinges, and his returning footfall, quick but slightly heavier, as though he was carrying something.
She waited for a few impatient moments. Then, unable to resist, she glanced back over her shoulder.
He stood a couple of yards behind her, an easel in front of him, painting with a small, narrow brush at what seemed a furious rate. His eyes darted constantly from his canvas to her, then he began to frown. “Look straight ahead. Don’t take a step. Please,” he added with a quick, distracted grin.
“Hurry, then, for I can’t stand here all day,” she retorted, slightly piqued that anyone should prefer the back of her head to the front. But she did face ahead again.
He didn’t speak, and she found herself wondering what it was about the light that so entranced him. Shining through the trees, it did have that pretty, dappled quality on the ground at least, and she could imagine the muted, autumn colors of the leaves and hills beyond as part of a fairy tale world.
“I always found it frustrating,” she remembered, “that I could never paint what I saw. Frances and Gillie were always better than me.”
“Did they paint what you saw?”
“No. I always itched to change them—or make them change them, for I’d just have spoiled their paintings—but they never knew what I was talking about.”
“So you’re never satisfied with anyone’s painting,” he observed.
“Well, I haven’t seen yours yet,” she pointed out, eager to see what he did with the red of the falling leaves.
“It will probably be a long wait.”
She sensed movement behind her and again her skin prickled in a way that was not remotely unpleasant. In fact, it was oddly exciting. He appeared in front of her, a sketch book and pencil in his hands, staring at her face until she felt a blush rise under his scrutiny. She could only suppose the view was better from the back. And then his pencil flew across the page. A faint smile played about his lips as he worked.
“There,” he said, lowering pencil and paper, and striding back to his easel.
She swung around to watch him pack his things into the satchel and the bundle she’d seen him carrying from the drawing room window. “May I not see?”
“If it turns into anything half-way good. Walk with me?”
Serena blinked. “Walk with you where?”
“Anywhere. I’d like to know something of the young lady behind the beautiful face.”
“It’s too late for flattery,” she said severely. “I already know you prefer the back of my head.”
He smiled. “It’s all you.”
Somehow, they’d fallen into step together, walking along the orchard path in the direction she’d meant to take before he stopped her.
“You don’t work here at all, do you?”
“Well, I do occasionally,” he insisted, patting his satchel. “But no, I am not employed in the Earl’s household. What’s your name?”
“Serena.” Now, surely, he would recognize the name and know she was the Earl’s sister. Inevitably, his over-casual manners would change, whatever class he came from, and that would be a shame. She rather liked him as he was.
Certainly, he regarded her more closely, almost as if he were surprised. “It’s a pretty name,” he allowed. “But you don’t seem terribly serene to me.”
“I’m not,” she said ruefully. “I’m in disgrace.”
“My engagement has been broken.”
“Officially,” she confessed. “But in fact, he did it.”
The artist gazed at her, frowning faintly. “What a fatwit.”
“Yes, but he’s been more than generous in allowing me to do the crying off and so save what’s left of my reputation.”
“Good Lord. What on earth did you do?”
She sighed. “Nothing. I danced three times instead of two with Lord Daxton, but only because we both forgot. And,” she admitted in the interests of honesty, “I may have flirted with him a little.”
“Well, he’s a fun person to be with. I’d probably flirt with him myself if the circumstances were right.”
She laughed. “You say the oddest things.”
“I’m a pretty odd person.”
“Do you paint as a living?” she asked curiously.
“Not sure it would count as a living. It lets us eat but doesn’t keep the bailiffs off my back.”
“Siblings,” he said disparagingly.
For some reason she was pleased he hadn’t meant wife and children. “Do you have many siblings?”
“Two brothers, two sisters, but one of the sisters is married, thank God. You?”
“One older brother, one older, married sister, and three younger sisters.” She frowned. “Why do you paint at the castle? There are better views in the environs of Blackhaven, surely, than this orchard.”
He cast her a sardonic glance. “Did I mention the bailiffs? I’m hiding.”
“Really?” she said, intrigued all over again.
“I’ll tell them you’ve gone to Scotland, if that would help?”
“It might,” he said, gratefully. “Thank you.”
“We might need the rest of the town to tell the same story, of course, but… Are you laughing at me?”
“I’m delighting in you, which is quite different.”
She cast him an uncertain glance. His teasing was verging on flirting, which she really couldn’t allow, especially given her disgrace. Besides which, he was a stranger of whom she knew nothing, and an artist to boot. She doubted anyone would consider him respectable let alone safe.
“It’s a good thing and quite harmless,” he assured her, reaching up to pluck a solitary leaf off an apple tree branch. It was pale, golden brown and, halting his step, he held it up to her hair. “Almost.”
“Almost what?” she asked, bewildered.
“The same color.”
“Is that good?” she asked with a hint of defiance.
“Exact would be better,” he said. “For the leaf.”
She couldn’t help smiling. “You talk a lot of nonsense, you know.”
“So I’ve been told.” His gaze dipped from her eyes to the region of her lips, and her breath caught.
“I should go.” Although she meant it to be decisive and forbidding, the words sounded as reluctant as she felt about leaving the eccentric stranger just yet.
“Must you?” He sounded flatteringly disappointed. Slowly, his gaze lifted back to hers.
He had rather beautiful eyes for a man, large and dark and yet always with that shade of laughter, as if he was never serious about the world. They caused a thrilling little twist in her stomach, as though a flock of butterflies had just taken wing,
She swallowed. “Yes, I must,” she said firmly.
“Then meet me again tomorrow.”
“Here?” he suggested.
She raised her eyebrows. “If you’re still hiding from your bailiffs.”
“Until tomorrow, then.” He raised his hand to her cheek, his fingertips just brushing her skin. A smile flickered across his lips and was gone as he lowered his head.
Her heart turned over, for his intention was obvious. She couldn’t allow this… But if she’d ever truly meant to avoid it, he was too quick. His mouth fastened to hers, gentle and sweet and melting. Her eyelids fluttered shut, and then it was over.
He raised his head, waiting, it seemed, for her reaction.
“Why did you do that?” she blurted.
“Well, I don’t often get the chance to kiss the women I really want to paint.”
She frowned. “I don’t know if I should be insulted or flattered.”
“Neither. I never flatter, you know, and I’d certainly never insult you. Until tomorrow.”
Forcing herself, she hurried away from him. At the end of the path, she couldn’t help turning back, but he’d already gone.
Rupert Gaunt, the impoverished Marquis of Tamar, walked back to Blackhaven from the castle with his vision full of the girl, Serena. She’d intrigued him first by the way she ran up the orchard hill and spun around with the sheer joy of living. There had been such energy in her, such a sense of escape and freedom that he’d found himself smiling. And then she’d run down the hill again before assuming a much more sedate posture that had almost made him laugh out loud.
And then the sunlight caught her hair and he’d had to stop her, to catch the image before it faded. She wasn’t just beautiful, she was enchanting…
He shouldn’t have kissed her, of course. That was hardly gentlemanly, however chaste the embrace. She’d just looked so lonely and sad and confoundedly sweet that he’d acted on instinct—which generally turned out badly for him. But she hadn’t thrown a fit of the vapors, and her lips had been deliciously soft…
Vaguely aware of people greeting him in the street as he strode through town, he merely lifted one hand in response, for he could not stop.
He lived in a small cottage by the shore, and as he turned onto the front road leading to it, he caught sight of Rivers, the bum-bailiff hastening up the street toward him. With aplomb, Tamar darted into the nearest cottage doorway.
Fortunately, the door was open.
“Sorry,” he muttered, diving inside.
The gentleman known as Smuggler Jack, nodded amiably at him from the table in the middle of the room, where he seemed to be mending a fishing net. “Law after you?”
“Bailiff. Wants money or intends to haul me off to debtors’ prison. Not sure which would make him happier.”
Jack rose to his feet and ambled to the door, where he inhaled deeply and stretched. “He’s been hanging around all day, sitting on your front step.” He glanced up and down the road. “He’s heading up toward the tavern now.”
“Thanks, Jack. I owe you.”
Tamar clapped him on the back and stepped past him into the road. Then he strode on toward his own cottage, which he called his studio.
Entering, he carefully locked the door behind him, but he was reluctant to close the shutters and block out the light. Hopefully, Rivers had gone for the day.
Tamar threw his coat on the floor and set up his easel among the mess. He propped the canvas up on it and gazed at Serena’s beautiful hair in the dappled sunlight, shining and pretty. He had caught the color of the light, which had been his most urgent concern. Now he could finish it at his leisure.
Bending, he took the sketch book from his satchel and examined the hasty pencil sketch of her face. He could do a pair, Serena the un-serene beauty, front and back.
Smiling, he fetched more paint and began to mix.