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Thea's Marquis

Thea's Marquis by Carola Dunn
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Grateful for Lord Hazlewood’s quixotic aid, Thea Kilmore wishes he’d see her as more than a damsel in distress. Roderick, meanwhile, wishes she’d regard him as more than a white knight to turn to when in trouble. Sequel to A Lord for Miss Larkin and The Road to Gretna

Regency Romance by Carola Dunn; originally published by Harlequin

Belgrave House; May 1993
152 pages; ISBN 9780373312238
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Thea's Marquis
Author: Carola Dunn
 
Excerpt

Outside the carriage window, the October after­noon was fading fast. Inside, two of the passengers were doing likewise. Wan with exhaustion. Penny slumped back against the squabs, while Megan, a trifle green about the gills, moaned with the pain of a headache. Her bonnetless head was cradled in her mother’s black bombazine lap, which was becoming positively damp from the trickle of tears Meg could not stop.

“Mama, we cannot go on as far as Stilton,” Thea said with uncharacteristic determination. “I daresay it is another ten miles or more. Surely we shall come to another inn before then?”

“Your brother reserved rooms for us at The Bell,” said the Dowager Lady Kilmore doubtfully.

“Jason will not mind where we stay. Penny, do you not think we ought to stop at the next inn?”

“Oh, please!” Meg cried out.

Their sister-in-law nodded without opening her eyes. “All I want is a bed, be it in a palace or a hedge-tavern.”

“Mama?”

“Perhaps you are right, Thea. Tell Scargill to stop at the next inn, but only if it is respectable.” She stroked her younger daughter’s dark hair. “I know how miser­ably you feel, Meg darling, but truly you would not be comfortable in a hedge-tavern.”

As she turned to open the sliding hatch to instruct the coachman, Thea saw Penny flush slightly at the dowa­ger’s gently indirect reproof. Dear Mama had no sense of humour, whereas Penny had a great deal, which made for frequent misunderstandings. Mama tended to suspect that her new daughter-in-law’s odd utterances were due to her unfortunate background, and there­fore to be tactfully corrected. Thea touched Penny’s hand to show she knew her words had been ironic. Opening her grey-green eyes. Penny smiled at her gratefully.

After a brief exchange with Scargill, Thea turned back to the others. “He says this village is Wansford. There is a perfectly unexceptionable inn just ahead, so I told him we shall stay the night. The Haycock, it is called.”

Penny started and looked out of the window, her cheeks flushing once again. In the dusk, Thea saw that the carriage was crossing a long bridge above a low-lying meadow, and then the twilight glinted on a placid river below. Nothing that she could see explained Pen­ny’s pink cheeks. No doubt something had happened during her ill-fated elopement, which had providen­tially ended in her marriage to Jason rather than her intended husband, Dr. Angus Knox. Thea resolved to ask her later, in private.

A moment later the carriage swung left and came to a halt in a courtyard surrounded by slate-roofed build­ings of pale yellow stone. Three pairs of eyes turned to­wards Thea.

She quailed. Even where Jason had reserved rooms for them, she had found it difficult to walk into inns on the way south. Brought up on an isolated estate in the wilds of Northumberland, Thea was diffident with anyone but her family, and downright bashful with strangers.

Silently she castigated herself for a coward. It was up to her. Scargill was a countryman whose Northumber­land dialect had already proved incomprehensible to those he disdained as foreigners. Besides, he was sadly rheumaticky and would complain bitterly about climb­ing down from the box. Under other circumstances, ei­ther Meg or Penny would have faced the most churlish of innkeepers without turning a hair, but Meg was un­well and Penny burnt to the socket. The Dowager Lady Kilmore, like her elder daughter, was uncomfortable with strangers. She was also inclined to an absent-minded vagueness that made it unwise to leave arrangements to her.

Thea took a deep breath. Wishing she were six inches shorter, and that her threadbare blue woollen cloak were a modish velvet pelisse, she stepped down from the carriage.

An ostler approached from one side, a waiter with a white napkin over his arm from another. Rushing past them, Thea hurried into the inn.

The lobby, brightly lit by oil lamps hanging from the oak beams, was empty but for a few chairs standing against the whitewashed walls. On one side a door stood open to reveal a glimpse of a busy coffee-room, from which wafted appetizing odours. On the other side, rowdy voices and the smell of beer came from the tap­room. Thea hesitated, dreading the thought of walking into either. She should have spoken to the waiter, she realized in dismay.

Then a stout, rubicund man in a blue coat with shiny brass buttons came out of the coffee-room. “What can I do for you, miss?” he enquired genially.

“We need rooms for tonight. Lady Kilmore and Lady...and the Dowager Lady Kilmore and two Misses Kilmore.”

“I’m right sorry, miss, but you’ll have to tell your mistress there’s no room.”

Thea blushed furiously, feeling dowdier than ever. “I...I am Miss Kilmore,” she stammered.

“Begging your pardon, madam, I’m sure, but it don’t make no difference. There was a mill today over to Collyweston and the house is full o’ sporting gents. ’Tis only a matter o’ six miles to Stamford, or nine to Stil­ton if so be you’re going south. There’s good enough inns both places.”

“We cannot go farther. Please, we only need two chambers between us, or even one, if you have truckle beds.”

The man looked harassed. “’Tis the truth, ma­dam,” he insisted, “I haven’t a single chamber free.”

“What’s the trouble, Percival?” queried a deep, lazy voice. Down the stairs behind the innkeeper trod a large, fair-haired gentleman in elegant black evening clothes with a plain burgundy satin waistcoat. A ruby gleamed in the knot of his dazzlingly white cravat. Per­fectly proportioned for his height, he was light on his feet, moving with the controlled grace of an active, vigorous man.

Percival swung round, spreading his hands in a ges­ture of helplessness. “My lord, this young lady wants rooms for the night and I simply don’t have any.”

Something in the gentleman’s amiable face inspired confidence in Thea. “Sir,” she cried, “my sister is wretchedly ill from the motion of the carriage and my sister-in-law is enceinte. They can go no farther to­night.”

“Then they shall not, ma’am,” he said calmly. “Do you not agree, Will?” Reaching the bottom of the stairs, the large gentleman moved aside.

From behind him emerged a slight figure in a purple coat, pale yellow pantaloons, and a waistcoat embroi­dered with purple, yellow-centred Michaelmas daisies. His light brown hair, cut in a fashionable Brutus, added an inch or two to his height, but when he had de­scended the last few steps Thea saw that his merry blue eyes were on a level with her own.

“I told you your foppery would make the ladies stare,” the first gentleman continued, his deep voice amused.

Thea’s cheeks grew hot. “I...I beg your pardon, sir,” she faltered.

The young man laughed. “Not to worry, ma’am. A fellow likes to know his efforts are appreciated. What’s going on, Rod? I couldn’t hear a word through your Brobdingnagian bulk.”

“Allow me, ma’am, to make known to you my cousin, William DeVine. I am Hazlewood. We shall be honoured if you will accept the use of our chambers for your ailing sisters.”

“Here, I say, Rod!” protested Mr. DeVine. Then he caught a glance from Lord Hazlewood and resigned himself. “I mean, of course, ma’am, we shall be de­lighted to be of assistance.” Drawing himself up to his full height, he turned to the landlord and ordered, “See to it, Percival.”

“At once, sir, my lord.” He bustled off, calling to his servants.

Lord Hazlewood brushed aside Thea’s thanks with a smile. “I don’t wish to hear another word on the sub­ject, ma’am. Perhaps your invalids would be glad of support into the inn?” he suggested with a gesture to­wards the door to the courtyard.

She led the way out into the chilly dusk. Towering at her side, he made her feel almost dainty despite her height. Mr. DeVine tagged along after them, grum­bling to himself. Thea caught a few words: “...An­other of your damned quixotic quirks!” The dandy was less than pleased to be cozened into giving up his chamber, but she could not feel guilty. Meg’s and Pen­ny’s need was far greater.

Her mother was peering anxiously from the carriage door, her shabby black bonnet askew. She shrank back as she caught sight of Thea’s stalwart companion.

“Mama, Lord Hazlewood will help Meg and Penny into the inn.”

“So will I,” said Mr. DeVine indignantly, coming forward. “I may appear puny beside my titanic cousin but I hope I am strong enough to lend a lady my arm.”

Uncertain whether to apologize or to perform intro­ductions, Thea hesitated.

Penny, decisive despite her fatigue, stepped down with the aid of Lord Hazlewood’s hand. “Thank you, sir. I am Lady Kilmore.” Though she sounded tired, after two months of marriage she was beginning to pronounce her title as if she believed in it, Thea noted. Leaning on his lordship’s arm, she trudged wearily to­wards the inn.

Helped by her mother within, Mr. DeVine without, Meg next stumbled from the carriage, still hatless be­cause her bonnet hurt her aching head. On either side of her woebegone face, dark curls escaped from plaited loops. Her small form shivered as the frosty air pene­trated her cloak, which was as threadbare as Thea’s.

“Will DeVine at your service, ma’am,” said the young dandy with a gallant bow. He offered his arm.

She took it with a grateful glance and a pitiful at­tempt at a smile. “I am not in general so feeble, sir.”

He had to bend his head to hear her faint murmur. With Meg beside him instead of his oversize cousin, he no longer appeared the least bit puny.

As Thea handed her mother down, the dowager whispered, “Who are these gentlemen, Thea? Surely you did not request assistance of strangers?”

She had not precisely requested assistance, she told herself guiltily. “They came into the hall when the inn­keeper was telling me that he had no rooms available. Lord Hazlewood insisted on our accepting his and Mr. DeVine’s bedchambers.”

“How very kind.” The elder Lady Kilmore’s soft voice was full of doubt. “But a trifle odd, if you did not speak to him.”

“I did speak to him, Mama,” Thea confessed. “He asked the landlord what was the matter and I explained that Meg is ill and Penny increasing.”

“Oh dear! It is most improper to mention that deli­cate subject to a gentleman, let alone to a complete stranger whom you ought not to have addressed at all.”

Thea’s heart sank. Lord Hazlewood probably con­sidered her a shameless hussy. He must have been scan­dalized, though he was too chivalrous to let it show. “I did not think,” she faltered. “I was worried about Penny.”

“I fear I have not taught you well.”

“Pray, Mama, do not blame yourself. Out of the world as we have been, I have had no chance to prac­tise your lessons.” Mortified, she entered the lobby with downcast eyes to avoid meeting his lordship’s gaze.

To her relief, Mr. Percival took charge. The Kilmores were whisked upstairs. One chamber was al­ready prepared, and on the opposite side of the passage a disapproving valet was just removing the last of his master’s traps.

Meg and the dowager disappeared into the first room, followed by a mob-capped chambermaid wielding a warming pan. Thea waited with Penny outside the other chamber while the valet set down a monogrammed leather portmanteau in the passage and went back to check that he had left nothing behind. He came out reverently bearing a pair of glossy, gold-tasselled Hes­sians, picked up the portmanteau, and sailed past Thea and Penny with his nose in the air.

The room was large and luxurious, with a huge feather bed, a bow-fronted chest of drawers, and a mirror-fronted wardrobe. Before a cheerful fire stood a small table with two chairs. Penny sank onto one of the chairs and took off her stylish white-plumed bon­net, revealing flaming red hair.

“I wish Jason had come to fetch us.” She sighed. “Sometimes I almost believe our marriage was a dream, only then I should not be pregnant and always out of curl. You don’t think he left because he was already tired of me?” she added unhappily.

“Don’t be a widgeon, Penny dear.” Thea set her faded blue bonnet on the chest and crossed to the look­ing-glass to tidy coiled braids as dark as her sister’s. “You know Jason had to go to London to look after your affairs and to make preparations for us to join him. From what he has written about the condition your uncle left your house in, I am surprised he has managed to make it fit to inhabit after so short a time.”

Penny looked unconvinced, but the arrival of the chambermaid with the warming pan and hot water, and then a boy with their bags, put an end to confidences.

“Will your ladyship be wantin’ any help?” asked the maid, adding with a hint of curiosity, “seein’ as your abigail been’t wi’ you.”

“Thank you, we shall help each other.” Penny did not deign to provide an explanation for the lack of even a single abigail for four ladies.

Thea admired and envied her assurance. Only on the subject of Jason did Penny lose her self-possession. It was the wrong moment to ask about the connection of Wansford and the Haycock Inn with her elopement. As Thea unpacked her sister-in-law’s nightshift and helped to unfasten her buttons, she talked of Lord Hazlewood and Mr. DeVine.

“Mama said I ought not to have spoken to them, and I have sunk myself beneath reproach by mentioning that you are with child, but I am glad I did since you and Meg can be comfortable.”

“So am I! It was brave of you.”

“Lord Hazlewood must suppose me shockingly coarse,” Thea said wistfully, “yet he was so very kind and courteous. I only hope I never have to meet either of them again.”

“Fustian!” Penny climbed into the high bed and sank back on the pillows with a sigh of relief. “They will put it down to your inexperience with the Polite World.”

“If I were fresh from the schoolroom, perhaps, but I am five and twenty, past the age to be permitted a few faux pas. If it were not that you claim to need my sup­port—which I don’t believe for an instant!—I should refuse to make my bow to Society along with Meg.” She tucked the counterpane around Penny. “I had best go and see how Meg and Mama go on. I shall return in a moment.”

Meg, too, was already tucked up in bed. The sickly tinge had left her cheeks, though she was still pale. Their mother was bathing her forehead with lavender water to try to relieve the headache that still oppressed her.

“You will feel better when you have eaten some­thing,” said Thea comfortingly. “You hardly touched a bite at luncheon.”

“If I had, I should have lost it long since,” Meg pointed out with a flash of her usual spirit.

Someone tapped on the chamber door and Thea went to answer it. A tall, thin man dressed in sober black bowed to her respectfully.

“I am Pelham, madam, the marquis’s gentleman. His lordship sends his compliments, and he begs the plea­sure of the company of any of your party that’s fit, to dine in his private parlour in an hour’s time.”

Dismayed, Thea started to refuse. “Oh, but we—”

“My daughter and I shall be happy to accept his lordship’s kind invitation,” interrupted her mother calmly, joining her by the door.

“My lady.” The man bowed again and departed.

Thea closed the door and leaned against it, suddenly weak at the knees. “I thought they would have gone on to another inn. Mama, I cannot face Lord Hazlewood after behaving with such a lack of decorum.”

“I fear you must, my love. Much as I dislike such in­timacy with strangers, we cannot refuse without rude­ness when he has been so excessively obliging.”

“But he is a marquis!”

“And you are the daughter of a baron, Thea, not an ill-bred, discourteous nobody. Go and put on your blue silk. You and I shall dine with the marquis and Mr. DeVine.”

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9780373312238