A Little Misunderstanding...
Kit, the Marquis of Ashton, is in a sticky wicket. He married young and for love—how naïve. He discovered his mistake the very day of his wedding, but he is saddled now with a wife he’s reluctant to trust. And however much evidence he gathers against faithless Jess, he can’t seem to prove her guilt to the final judge—his foolish heart.
Jess knows she’s bobbled her marriage, however innocently. A fairytale wedding makes no difference if she hasn’t got the marquis charmed to show for it. Well, she’s had enough of accidental encounters with naked gentlemen and near misses explaining things to her husband. It’s time to buck up and go win her man back—even if she has to fight very dirty indeed.
STARRED review! “Readers will love being treated to this lively, hilarious Regency romp in MacKenzie’s Duchess of Love series and will want all three books.”
Four Stars! “MacKenzie entices her readers into a funny, romantic tale with her protagonists at cross purposes, sizzling sensuality, a touch of poignancy and a surprise twist. This all adds up to a delightful read.”
~RT Book Reviews
“Historical romance at its best...a delight from beginning to end.”
~Debby, Single Titles
“...a showcase for MacKenzie’s sexy wit...”
~Eloisa James, Romance Review column for Barnes & Noble
"Sally MacKenzie has a rare gift for creating uniquely memorable characters, who...stay in your thoughts...long after the last page is read.”
~Be My Bard
Never jump to conclusions.
-Venus's Love Notes
The March wind stung his face, but the Marquis of Ashton, heir to the Duke of Greycliffe, still paused when he rounded the curve in the drive that led to Blackweith Manor.
Zeus, he loved this house, especially with the late afternoon sun limning its classical facade. It was so orderly and controlled. No one could look at it and not feel calm--
The image of Jess’s milky white thighs--and Percy’s naked arse between them--shoved to the front of his thoughts. Again. He’d been battling the memory every minute of every hour on this blasted journey.
He shifted on his horse, making the animal toss its head. The jangling of its bridle sounded unnaturally loud in the quiet.
There was nothing calm or controlled about the place. It was a wasp’s nest--smooth and beautiful on the outside, but a mass of stinging, painful chaos on the inside. He should go back to Greycliffe Castle. A wise man didn’t poke a wasp’s nest. He’d left this problem alone for eight years; why couldn’t he leave it for another eight?
His fingers tightened on the reins. Because he needed an heir, of course. He’d just turned thirty; Jess was twenty-eight. It was past time to set up his nursery. Running back to the castle would not give him a son to carry on the title.
He nudged his horse forward. Hell, he couldn’t run back even if he wanted to. He’d never had such a cursed journey. What with the snow and the mud and the washed-out bridges--not to mention his horse coming up lame, forcing him to hire this slug he was currently riding--a trip that should have taken two days had stretched to over a month. Even the few interesting buildings he’d seen along the way hadn’t made up for the slow pace and maddening detours.
Well, he was here now. Surely he and Jess could come to some agreement. He was only asking for a couple years of her life. Once she gave him his heir and his spare, she could go back to doing as she pleased. It was a very common arrangement among the ton.
A cloud drifted in front of the sun, bringing a chill to the air, turning the manor’s warm stone dark and forbidding. His stomach tightened with each step the bloody horse took up the drive.
His brother Jack had said the London idiots were taking bets on what he would do about his union with Jess. It was a particularly delightful situation for the gossips because Mama was the Duchess of Love, the ton’s premier matchmaker and the author of Venus’s Love Notes, mortifying leaflets of marital advice. How ironic that her oldest son had made such a damnable muddle of his marriage.
Yet everyone but his mother knew love didn’t last. . . .
Love. He scowled at his horse’s ears. If he didn’t feel this wretched, stupid love for Jess, everything would be much simpler. He wouldn’t have married her in the first place, or he would have had a calm discussion with her about her duty as soon as they’d left the church. But he did love her. He loved her--and he hated her, too.
He was such a bloody fool. He had no one to blame for this mess but himself.
He stopped at the front of the manor and waited. When no one came to take his horse, he dismounted.
The horse stomped its front hoof and gave him a nasty look.
“Don’t complain. I’ll grant you this is irregular, but I’m sure someone will come out and take you to the stables shortly. It’s not as if you exerted yourself. A slower hack would be hard to find in all of England.”
The animal snorted and tossed its head, but it couldn’t dispute the truth of the matter.
Ash shifted his shoulders, trying to ease the kinks out of his back. God, every one of his muscles ached. If only Inigo hadn’t pulled up lame--
No, it was just as well. If he was going to bring Jess back to the castle, he’d have to take a carriage, and this way he wouldn’t be tempted to ride instead of sitting inside with her. He didn’t want to spend one more moment astride this bag of bones.
The horse found a few blades of grass to nibble, so Ash was confident the animal would stay put for the time being. He climbed the stairs to bang on the front door.
He scowled. The servants either did not expect visitors or the butler was deaf. Well, he would have a word with Walker, the estate manager, after he spoke to Jess. If he remembered correctly, he was paying for a full staff. He expected anyone working for him to be competent.
He tried the latch; the door opened easily. Good God! This was the country, but even so, leaving the door unlocked and unattended was not wise. Perhaps he’d have to make a list of things to discuss with Walker.
Sadly, this was what happened when one didn’t visit one’s estate regularly. He stepped over the threshold.
“Hallo! Is anyone here?”
He heard an odd sort of yelp and some scuffling, and then a large man hurried out from the back of the house, tucking in his shirttail and fastening his fall as he came.
He stopped when he saw Ash, his hands still on his buttons. A slow grin spread across his face. “We-ell, who do we have here?” His eyes swept Ash from his boots to his head and back.
Was the fellow drunk? “Ashton. I’ve come to see my wife.”
“W-what?” The man’s jaw dropped.
He must be a half-wit. It would be just like Jess to insist Walker take on a man who wasn’t employable elsewhere. She might lift her skirt for anything in breeches, but she did sincerely care about the less fortunate. Perhaps it was the artist in her; she saw people who were invisible to most everyone else. But she also gave little thought to her own safety. She’d very likely never considered how she’d be at this fellow’s mercy if he became violent.
Once they came to an agreement about their marriage, he would have to discuss that with her. Perhaps the man could be moved to the fields. At least then he wouldn’t have the run of the house.
“I’m Lord Ashton.” Ash spoke slowly and distinctly so the fellow could comprehend. “I’m here to see Lady Ashton. Your mistress.”
The man’s brows snapped down, and he snorted. “And I’m Prinny himself. You’ll have to try harder than that to fool me, my fine fellow. Anyone will tell you Lord Ashton never comes to Blackweith Manor.” The butler, or whatever he was, stepped forward to grab the door. “Now turn yourself around and be off, or I’ll help you on your way with my boot.”
“I am not going anywhere.” Ash stood his ground and glared. Good God. He’d never expected to have to prove his identity.
“Who is it, Charlie?” Another man, also fiddling with his fall, came up behind the first.
Charlie sniffed. “Some scoundrel who says he’s Lord Ashton, Ralph.” He glanced out the door at the broken-down nag and curled his lip. “I don’t know what your game is, sirrah, but you won’t cozen Charlie Lundquist.”
Ash clenched his fists, struggling to keep a hold on his temper. This was ridiculous. “I don’t say I’m Lord Ashton, I am the marquis, and if you don’t move aside at once, Charlie Lundquist, you will find yourself on your arse next to that poor hack.”
Charlie was not easily cowed. “Brave words. Now let’s see you try--”
“Charlie.” Ralph had been studying Ash. Now his eyes widened, and he grabbed Charlie’s arm.
“Let go.” Charlie tried to shake him off, but Ralph hung on.
“Charlie,” he hissed, “he does look bloody like the painting in the library.”
Charlie paused and examined Ash more closely. “I . . .”
“And look at his clothes. They’re muddy, but they’re quality.”
Charlie’s eyes narrowed. “But the marquis never visits.”
“He has now,” Ash said. “And I will tell you that you and Mr. Walker will be looking for new positions if this is how matters are handled at Blackweith Manor.” He took a savage sort of satisfaction when Lundquist paled at his use of the estate manager’s name. “Now take me to my wife.”
“Ahh.” Charlie looked at Ralph, and then they both looked up the stairs. They turned back with identical expressions of horror.
“Please forgive me, milord,” Charlie said, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopping his brow. “If you will just come along to the parlor, you can be comfortable while Ralph tells Lady Ashton you’re here.”
Any fool could see they were trying to hide something from him. “I do not wish to go to the parlor; I wish to see my wife.”
“Yes, of course, milord. It’s just that Lady Ashton is a little busy at the moment.” Charlie nudged Ralph toward the staircase. “I’m sure--”
Bloody hell! He could guess what Jess was busy with. He lunged forward and grabbed Ralph’s arm before the man could escape. “On second thought, I shall announce myself. You may attend to my horse.”
Ralph stared at Ash’s hand as if it belonged to Death.
“But, milord,” Charlie sputtered, “please. You will truly be much more comfortable in the parlor while Ralph fetches Lady Ashton.” He smiled nervously. “I’ll bring you a nice bottle of brandy.”
“No.” Ash knew what he would see upstairs, but he needed to see it. He needed to feel the pain to remember why he could not let Jess stay in his heart. “Where is she?”
Charlie and Ralph looked at each other again, their shoulders slumping as they realized the futility of resisting him.
“The studio, milord,” Charlie said.
There hadn’t been a studio when he’d lived here. “Where?”
“Top floor,” Ralph said. “First door on the left.”
Where the nursery had been. Damn.
He dropped his hold on Ralph and started up the stairs.
* * * * *
Jessica, Marchioness of Ashton, mixed brown into the white paint on her palette. She could not get Roger’s skin color right today. She swiped her brush with the new tint over his stomach.
No, that was wrong, too.
“You really should talk about it, you know.”
Jess glanced up from her easel to glare at Roger, reclining naked on a red chaise longue. “Talk about what?”
Roger just lifted an eyebrow.
He knew, of course. She’d been in a foul mood since before Valentine’s Day. It was a bad time every year, but this year had been by far the worst. Her fit of the dismals had lasted over a month.
She dropped her eyes back to her canvas. “There’s nothing to say.”
She did not care what Kit did. If he wanted to fornicate with Ellie—
Dear God! She squeezed her eyes shut at the thought’s all too familiar pain. How could Ellie climb into Kit’s bed? Kit was the heir to a duchy; everyone knew the aristocracy lived by different rules. But Ellie was a vicar’s daughter, and she’d been Jess’s childhood friend.
Jess plopped more brown paint onto her palette.
But people changed, didn’t they? She’d never have guessed Kit would turn into such a rake; he’d been brilliant, but rather awkward and shy when they were growing up. Now, though, the Marquis of Ashton visited too many ladies’ beds to count. The London papers had been full of his exploits—so full she’d stopped reading them.
If he had a proper wife, perhaps he’d stay in his own bed.
She mixed the paint with short, sharp strokes. Yes, perhaps he would.
She was not one to make excuses for herself. After that dreadful scene with Percy, it was perfectly obvious why Kit wouldn’t wish to have anything to do with her.
But then why had he offered for her?
She shook her head. No matter what his reasons, she should not have accepted him.
This year Kit had turned thirty. Time was passing. He would want to start his nursery.
He would have to divorce her.
Finally, her marriage would be over--and that was what was causing her stupid heart to feel as if it were made of lead.
She frowned at her palette. Painting and drawing had always been her escape. She just needed to focus. She’d feel better eventually. Not happy--she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt really happy--but at least not so morose.
Hmm. Roger’s skin was closer to olive. Maybe she should try a touch of yellow? She mixed in just a little. . . .
Oh, blast. Now the color looked like what her dog hacked up after eating grass.
Roger snorted, shifting position slightly. “There’s plenty to say, as well you know.”
“Don’t be an ass. And keep still. I’m never going to get this painting right if you fidget.” She started over, mixing brown paint into white again.
Most people would say she’d landed on her feet. She’d had a roof--a very comfortable roof--over her head and food on the table for eight years, as well as plenty of paint and canvas and brushes. For someone who was the daughter of an Irish groom and a seamstress, it should have been a dream come true.
But she had dreamt of more. She had fallen in love with Kit, with the future Duke of Greycliffe, and had imagined her life by his side, not as a duchess but as a wife.
Stupid! She should have weeded her ridiculous love out of her breast the moment she’d first felt it. By the time she’d tried to do so, it had been too late. It had grown like thistle; its roots deep, spreading into every corner of her life.
“If you want me to be still,” Roger said, “you’d best put more coals on the brazier. I don’t know why you insist on painting me without a stitch of clothing when the snow has barely melted from the fields.” Roger leered at her. “Just can’t resist my manly physique, can you?”
She slammed down her brush, causing a bit of brown paint to spatter over her palette. “Don’t flatter yourself. A still life of a dead bird would be far more tempting--and easier to paint. Damn it, why can’t you be as pale as a proper Englishman?”
“Blame my Italian mother.”
“Your poor mother.” She started for the coal bin. “She--ack!” Oh, hell, she’d forgotten Kit, her enormous black dog, was stretched out at her feet. She tripped on him, pitched forward, and went crashing to the floor.
Kit’s deep, loud bark almost drowned out Roger’s cursing. They’d both leapt up and were now staring at her.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, of course. I’m fine.” Her lace cap had been knocked askew, and a large quantity of her straight, thick hair had escaped its pins--it was hard enough to keep under control in the best of circumstances.
She sat up and ripped off the cap, letting her hair tumble down her back. She clearly wasn’t going to get any good painting done today. She might as well give up. Maybe if she went for a long walk, the cold air would shock some sense into her.
Kit licked her cheek, and she wrapped her arms around him, burying her face in his long, black coat. He’d been her loyal companion since she’d got him as a puppy, a few years after she’d come to the manor. “Oh, you big Fluff. I’m sorry I tripped on you. Are you all right?”
He barked again.
“Not in my ear, you silly dog! You’ll deafen me.”
“Here, let me help you up.” Roger extended his hand.
His male bit dangled right at her eye level.
She admired all aspects of the human body, but this poor part was ungainly and, well, ugly. It really was best hidden by a fig leaf or a pair of well-fitted pantaloons. And it wasn’t only Roger’s that was unattractive; she’d painted enough of the male servants to know the organ’s homeliness was universal.
Percy’s certainly had been--
No. She would not think about that disgusting blackguard.
She forced herself to smile up at Roger, which had the added advantage of taking her eyes off his least attractive feature. The rest of him was lovely. He had long limbs, broad shoulders, and well-defined muscles. He was by far her favorite model.
She let him haul her to her feet.
“You’re certain you’re all right?” he asked.
“Yes, of course.” She tugged on her hand, but he didn’t relinquish it.
“I was afraid you’d hurt yourself.”
She made a face at him. “The only thing hurt is my pride.” She tugged again.
“Well, that’s good.” He finally let her go, but only so he could grab her shoulders. He shook her a little. “Jess, you know you can’t keep living this way.”
“Living what way?” She dropped her eyes to his collarbone. She’d definitely mixed too much brown into the white paint. If she--
“You know. Married, but not married.”
Her eyes snapped back up to scowl at him. Blast it, she knew everyone in the house worried about her, but until now everyone had been kind enough to hold his tongue. Why was Roger bringing the subject up when he knew she was so terribly out of sorts?
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She put her hands on his chest and pushed, but his grip on her shoulders only tightened.
“In the four years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen you really happy, Jess. Dennis and I were just discussing it last night.”
Dennis Walker, her—no, Kit’s estate manager--and Roger’s lover.
“I am happy. Why wouldn’t I be? I have a houseful of servants to do my bidding.” She looked him in the eye. “And I bid you drop this topic.”
His mouth was set in an unpleasantly mulish line. “But you don’t have a husband.”
“I do have a husband.” That was the whole problem.
“But not in your bed.”
A hot, odd yearning exploded in her stomach. “Damn it, Roger. Didn’t you hear me? I do not wish to talk about my marriage.”
Roger ignored her. “Every year, when the marquis’s birthday approaches, you get quieter and quieter. This year has been the worst. Valentine’s Day is more than a month gone, and you’re still dragging around as if it were yesterday.”
“You are mistaken.”
Roger lifted his damn eyebrow again.
“And even if you’re not, it will pass.”
He tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “Until it comes again next year and the year after and the year after that. Your life is drifting away, Jess. Is that really what you want?”
“No, of course not.” Damnation, her voice broke. She bit the inside of her cheek and willed herself not to cry. She was tired, that was all. She hadn’t been sleeping well lately.
“Dennis and I think it’s time you faced your husband.”
Dennis and he had been far too busy about her business. “No.”
“I don’t know what he did--”
“He didn’t do anything.” Her predicament was her own fault. She should never have let things with Percy go so far. She just hadn’t been thinking clearly. And then Kit had come in at precisely the wrong moment.
Why had he offered for her?
She’d wondered that for eight years. All she could surmise was the proposal had been a momentary lapse in judgment, Kit’s generous heart speaking before his considerable intellect could silence it. And once the words were said, he couldn’t unsay them and maintain his honor. She’d realized that even then.
And selfishly, she’d leapt to accept. She definitely should not have done that, but she’d been young and stupid and in love. She’d known she had some beauty; she’d seen how the other men looked at her. She’d even stolen a few kisses. She’d thought she’d have no trouble getting Kit to fall in love with her.
“--but he should settle things now. And if he won’t come to the manor, you need to go to him.”
She stared at Roger. Go to Kit? Go to Greycliffe Castle and see the duke and the duchess and Ellie and Kit’s brothers and perhaps Percy?
She was going to throw up.
“You can do it, Jess. You have to.”
“No, I . . .”
But things couldn’t get any worse than they were, could they? It was just a matter of time. Kit was going to divorce her anyway. Why wait?
She took a deep breath and nodded. “All right.”
Roger grinned. “That’s the spirit.” He threw his arms around her, apparently forgetting he was naked, and hugged her.
She hugged him back, since leaving her hands on his chest was uncomfortable and letting them dangle risked encountering portions of his anatomy she’d rather avoid. And she did love him. He was the brother she’d never had. He was funny and kind and maddening and sometimes overbearing.
And he had terrible timing.
The door flew open right at that moment, and she jerked her head around to see who’d come all the way up to the studio.
Oh, bloody, bloody hell.
She stared directly into her husband’s furious eyes.
Copyright © 2014 by Sally MacKenzie