THE MAN IS PRACTICAL
As marriage proposals go, Charles Draysmith's suit is as romantic as the moors in December. Emma Peterson might be only a vicar's daughter, and he the new Marquis of Knightsdale, and perhaps he wouldrather marry her than endure the marriage mart. But when he suggests how much he'll enjoy securing an heir, well, a lady can only endure so much.
BUT THE LADY IS PASSIONATE
There's something about a woman throwing pottery at a man that piques his interest. Perhaps his proposal lacks grace, Charles thinks. But it does seem a perfect solution. He acquires a wife; his young charges have the mother they so desperately need, and Emma gains security and position. You see? Simple. Practical. Sensib—oh no, not the ceramic dog… He will have to confess the truth to calm her down. And the truth is, he's madly in love…
"...a pure delight...filled with very loveable characters, and perhaps the sexiest hero I've read in a long, long time."
~Valarie Pelissero, Rakehell
"...charming...funny...full of delightful characters...The Naked Marquis merits a place on the keeper shelves of readers of the traditional Regency and the spicier Regency-set historical romances alike."
~Jane Bowers, Romance Reviews Today
"...a delightful read."
~JoAnn, Fallen Angels Reviews
"...a wild, witty, and wonderful romance."
~Wateena, Coffee Time Romance
"MacKenzie's mix of humor and sensuality, with just a hint of suspense, definitely works.... The Naked Marquis is a lot of fun."
"...a highly enchanting and thoroughly polished novel...you will not want to let the characters out of your sight. Their lives are your life, their discoveries are your discoveries, and their passions become your desires."
~Janalee Ruschhaupt, The Road to Romance
"The Naked Marquis is a delicious indulgence. Treat yourself!"
~Connie Payne, Once Upon A Romance
"With Sally MacKenzie's The Naked Marquis, you'll never stop laughing at the antics of the countryside."
~Lysa Demorest, Writers Unlimited
"With a delightfully quirky cast of characters and heated bedroom encounters, MacKenzie's latest Naked novel delivers a humorous, sprightly romance."
~Kathe Robin, Romantic Times BOOKclub Magazine
Why the bloody hell did Paul have to die?
Major Charles Draysmith stood on the broad gravel drive, rain dripping down his neck, and stared at the immense sandstone façade looming before him. He did not want to go inside.
He had lingered in London as long as he could, meeting with the solicitor, with Paul’s bankers, taking care of all the details of the succession--and hating every bloody minute. Every “yes, my lord” tore another piece of his life from him.
Thanks to an anonymous Italian thief, he was now the Marquis of Knightsdale.
A gust drenched his greatcoat, sending more rain cascading down his neck. He couldn’t stand out here forever like a great looby. Aunt Bea would be along shortly with the carriages and her servants and her overfed cat to prepare for the house party.
God. Tomorrow a horde of aristocratic young virgins and their mamas would descend on Knightsdale. Dread clawed at his gut, and his palms started to sweat, just as they had before every battle he’d fought on the Peninsula. He wanted to turn and run.
He stepped forward and banged on the door.
* * * * *
“Good morning, my lord.”
“Is it a good morning, Lambert?” Charles let the butler take his wet hat and coat. It had been ten years since he’d last seen the man--since Paul’s wedding. Lambert had new lines around his mouth and eyes, and his hair had thinned.
Doubtless the man noted changes in him as well, Charles thought. He’d barely been out of University when he’d last been home; now he was thirty, aged by the blood and dirt of war.
“Have someone look after my horse, will you?”
“Certainly, my lord. Is Lady Beatrice with you?”
“No, I rode on ahead. I--what is that racket?” Charles swore he heard the rumble of distant artillery.
“I believe it is Miss Peterson, my lord, with Lady Isabelle and Lady Claire.”
“What the hell are they doing?” Charles started for the stairs. The noise was coming from one of the upper floors.
“Skittles, my lord. In the long gallery.”
Skittles, Charles thought. How can the girls be playing skittles? They’re only infants.
He heard another rumble and then shrieking. Was someone hurt? He started running, taking the stairs two at a time. The long gallery, if he remembered correctly, had a number of heavy, marble busts of past Draysmiths. If one of them fell on a small child... And was that barking? A dog, too? Whatever was this Miss Peterson thinking? He had assumed Nanny and the governess--was her name Peterson? He hadn’t thought so. He would have remembered, surely, as that was the vicar’s name. He had assumed his young nieces were in good hands. Apparently he had been mistaken. Well, this Miss Peterson would shortly be finding herself seeking other employment.
He reached the long gallery just in time to see a small black and white terrier crash into the pedestal that supported Great Uncle Randall’s bust.
* * * * *
Emma Peterson leapt to steady the statue just as a man bellowed from the stairs. The surprise of hearing a male voice almost caused her to knock over the ugly sculpture herself. Surely Mr. Lambert would not have let a bedlamite into the house?
“What the bloody hell do you think you are doing, woman, letting that animal run loose? One of your charges could have been crushed.”
Emma stiffened. Who was this man, to come here, cursing and criticizing? She pushed her spectacles higher on her nose. Did she know him? His voice sounded slightly familiar. If only he would come closer.
What was she thinking? She should be wishing him back downstairs and out the door. He was not overly tall, but his broad shoulders and general air of command indicated he was used to getting his way. What if he proved threatening? If she shouted, would anyone hear her in time to come to her aid?
“Prinny didn’t mean any harm, sir.” Brave Isabelle faced their intruder with her narrow shoulders back, though she did step closer to Emma.
“Course he didn’t mean any harm.” Little Claire threw her arms around Prinny’s neck. “You’re a good dog, aren’t you, Prinny?”
Prinny barked and licked her face.
“Prinny? Good God, Prinny! He may be a good dog, miss, but he doesn’t belong racing around in here.”
“Sir.” Emma was pleased that her voice did not waver or crack. She pulled herself up to her full, if insignificant, height. “Sir, I must ask you to leave. Immediately.”
“You must ask me to leave? Madam, I shall be telling you to leave in no short order.”
Emma swallowed. Lud, he was coming closer. “Isabelle, Claire, come here, darlings.”
The man stopped. “Isabelle and Claire?”
“Yes.” Emma raised her chin.
He was close enough for her to see him clearly now. His face was sun-darkened, his curly brown hair cut ruthlessly short. He was older, stronger, more assured than the man she had last glimpsed from a distance at the late marquis’s wedding, but she knew him. She could never forget those eyes--clear blue, like lakes, with dark rims. Charles Draysmith, the boy she had idolized and the man she had sighed over, had returned to Knightsdale.
* * * * *
“These are my nieces?” Charles stared at the girls. The older one--Isabelle--looked to be about nine years old. She was thin with straight, wispy white-blond hair, high cheekbones, and Paul’s green eyes. The other one still had the plump curves of babyhood, but she was no longer an infant. She had his own wildly curly hair.
Claire, the little one, put her small fists on her hips--an action he’d swear he’d seen Nanny do countless times when he was a boy--and jutted out her chin. “Are you a bad man?”
“Claire!” The woman frowned. “This is your Uncle Charles, the new Marquis of Knightsdale.”
Charles studied the governess. How did she know who he was? Well, the servants should have been expecting him--he’d sent word that he and Aunt Bea were coming--so it wouldn’t have taken a genius to deduce his identity. But she had not known who he was at first or she would not have ordered him out of the house. She had bottom, he’d grant her that. She’d stood her ground in the face of his bellowing. Many an army private had blanched when on the receiving end of his temper.
She was only a few inches taller than Isabelle, but she did not look at all childlike. Not at all. He jerked his eyes higher to study her face. Dark blond hair, the color of warm honey and even curlier than his; a sprinkling of freckles; golden brown eyes, fringed with long, dark lashes...
“Runt?” He swallowed a shocked laugh of recognition. Surely this could not be Emma Peterson, the vicar’s daughter, the skinny little waif who used to follow at his heels like a lost puppy? The other boys had taunted him, but he hadn’t had the heart to turn her away. “Your pardon. I mean, Miss Peterson. Surely you are not the girls’ governess?”
“No, my lord. The governess, Miss Hodgekiss, was called home suddenly to care for her sick mother. I am merely filling in while she is gone.”
A delicate flush colored her cheeks. She did not meet his eyes. His gaze sharpened. His gut told him Miss Emma Peterson still harbored a shred of hero worship for him. Interesting. She was an attractive armful. Perhaps she would prove to be the solution to his problem. What if he asked her to marry him? He could certainly do worse. If he got her consent before the bloody house party, he wouldn’t have to spend the next few days running before the matrimonial hounds.
Charles felt Claire tug on his sleeve.
“Miss Hodgekiss is afraid her mum might die.” Big, brown eyes stared up at him. “My mum died on a mountain in It-lee.”
“Italy. Your mother and father died in the mountains of Italy.” Charles had to clear his throat. He had never much liked Cecilia, Paul’s wife. He’d thought her beautiful and shallow, like so many of the society misses. He tangled his fingers in Claire’s curls and glanced at Isabelle. The girls did not look grief-stricken. Not surprising. From what his friends the Duke of Alvord and the Earl of Westbrooke had said, Paul and Cecilia had not been doting parents. They’d spent most of their time in London or at someone else’s country estate.
“Are you our papa now?”
“Claire, don’t be a ninny!” Isabelle scowled. “Uncle Charles doesn’t want us. He wants his own family.”
Charles heard Miss Peterson draw in a sudden, sharp breath. He, too, felt as if he’d been kicked in the gut. True, he hadn’t given the girls much thought--hell, he’d thought they were still babes in arms--but that wasn’t at all the same as not wanting them.
“I’m your uncle, Isabelle. Your papa’s brother. So you are my family, and this is your home. Claire is right--I am like a father to you now.”
He smiled, seeing some of the tension leave the older girl’s shoulders. Surely he could be as much a father to his nieces as Paul had been.
“Tell me about your dog--Prinny did you call him? He doesn’t look much like our Regent.” All Charles could see of the small white and black dog was its stubby tail and hind legs. The rest was wedged between the wall and Great Uncle Randall’s pedestal. “Hey, sir, get away from there!”
Prinny stopped scrabbling at the base of a pilaster, sneezed, and padded over to investigate Charles’s boots.
“Prinny’s Miss Peterson’s dog, Papa.”
“Claire, dear, Lord Knightsdale is your uncle, not your papa.”
Claire’s lower lip stuck out. “But I don’t want an uncle--I want a papa!”
Charles knelt so his face was level with Claire’s. He saw the uncertainty and fear behind the stubbornness in her eyes. He’d seen those emotions in the eyes of so many children in Spain and Portugal. Claire was the child of a wealthy English family, but she was still a child.
“Some people might get confused if you call me Papa, Lady Claire. And it wouldn’t be nice to forget your own papa, would it?”
Claire’s lower lip trembled; her small arms crossed tightly across her chest. “I want a papa. Why can’t you be my papa? And Miss Peterson can be my mama.”
Charles felt as if he were teetering on the edge of a precipice. One false step and Claire would dissolve in tears.
“What if you call me Uncle Charles in company and Papa Charles in private?”
“When it’s just you and I--and Isabelle and Miss Peterson. Would that be acceptable?”
Claire chewed her bottom lip, then grinned and threw her arms around Charles’s neck. His arms came around her reflexively to keep from being knocked backward.
Claire’s skin was baby soft. Her curls tickled his jaw. Her breath, as she kissed his cheek, smelled of milk and porridge. He felt an odd melting sensation in his chest.
“That would be ‘ceptable, Papa Charles,” Claire said, before she turned to hug Prinny.
Ah, so he was not so much different from the dog. Were all children so free with their affection? He glanced at Isabelle. No, he thought not.
“You may call me Papa Charles, too, Isabelle, if you’d like.”
“I am nine, Uncle. I am not a baby anymore.”
“No, indeed.” He wished she were. Her body was too straight, too stiff. She reminded him of his young privates before their first battle. Nine was too young to be all grown up.
“Do you suppose I might borrow Miss Peterson for a while? I should like to have a word with her.”
“Of course,” Isabelle said.
Miss Peterson appeared to be suppressing a smile. Good. He definitely wanted her favorably disposed toward him.
“Isabelle, would you take Claire back up to the nursery?”
“Yes, Miss Peterson.”
“Can we take Prinny with us, Mama Peterson?”
Charles bit his lip to keep from laughing at Miss Peterson’s expression. She clearly was uncomfortable with Claire’s new name for her but did not want to hurt the little girl’s feelings.
“All right, as long as you make sure he doesn’t annoy Nanny.”
“Prinny wouldn’t ‘noy Nanny, would you, Prinny?”
The dog yapped twice and licked Claire’s face.
“See, Mama Peterson? Prinny is a very smart dog.”
“Yes, well, he can also be somewhat excitable.”
“Nanny likes Prinny, Miss Peterson,” Isabelle said. “She only pretends to be annoyed by him.”
“I don’t think she was pretending when he knocked over the flowers and soaked her dress, Isabelle.”
“But he didn’t mean to do that.” Claire stroked Prinny’s ear. “He just wanted to smell the big red rose.”
“Just be certain he stays away from Nanny’s flowers this time.”
“Yes, Miss Peterson, we will. Come on, Claire.”
Claire’s high voice carried across the gallery as she skipped toward the stairs. “I think Papa Charles will be a splendid papa, don’t you, Isabelle? He has very nice eyes and his hair is as curly as mine.”
Charles grinned, looking down at Emma. Her cheeks were flushed.
“I apologize, my lord. Claire is still very young. I’m sure her manners will improve.”
“Oh, I’m not offended. My hair is wretchedly curly--much like yours.” He let his eyes wander over her curls. She had tried to tame them, pulling them back off her face, but a number had escaped. Her blush deepened in a most attractive manner. “And I cannot object to having nice eyes--do you think them nice, Miss Peterson?”
“My lord!” Her face turned an even brighter red.
He smiled, offering her his arm. “Shall we repair to the study? I would appreciate your telling me about my nieces. As you may have guessed, I’ve not kept up with their lives.”
She hesitated, then laid her fingers on his sleeve. They trembled slightly, and he put his hand up to cover them. They were so small, so delicate. She had not struck him as delicate when she was a child--she’d been struggling so hard to keep up with him and his friends, he supposed. But she was not a child any longer. His eyes slid over to contemplate her bosom. No, not at all. And her lovely breasts certainly were not small, though he’d wager they were exquisite. A delectable handful, though covered by a very boring frock at the moment. His fingers itched to loosen her buttons and reveal the wonders she was hiding.
Sudden lust made a part of him, never small, grow significantly larger. He averted his eyes and repressed a smile.
His future suddenly looked much brighter.
* * * * *
Emma walked with Charles down the stairs to the study. Her emotions were disordered. She had been angry and frightened when he had burst upon them, but once she had comprehended who he was...well, she didn’t know what she felt.
She should still be angry. She had been angry these past four months when he had failed to make the short trip from London to visit his nieces. Not that the girls had missed him--they were used to neglect, more’s the pity. But Emma admitted to herself as she walked down the long staircase that she had been disappointed in him.
Oh, he had come briefly, for just a handful of hours, when the marquis and marchioness were laid in the family vault. But he had hurried back to London before the last prayer had faded, and he had not visited since. Why? What had happened to the man? Had the war changed him so drastically? Surely the boy she’d known would not have ignored his nieces in such a manner.
She remembered the day she’d met him. Remembered? Lud! She treasured the memory, recalling it whenever she felt lonely or sad or discouraged.
She had been six years old. Her father had just taken the Knightsdale living, and she missed her old house, her old playmates, everything familiar. Loneliness was a throbbing ache in her middle. She’d found a nice log by the stream that ran through the woods near the vicarage, and had settled down to cry until she had no tears left. But crying only made her stomachache worse.
And then Charles had come whistling into her world. She’d heard him before she saw him. She would have hidden away, but she was too exhausted from her tears. He’d stopped in front of her and put his hands on his hips.
He was only four years older than she, a skinny boy with curly brown hair, but he had seemed like a god in the wood’s still, leaf-sifted sunlight. He had made a noise of disgust and then had pulled a grubby handkerchief out of his pocket.
Buck up, he’d said as he’d scrubbed her face. Stop blubbering. You don’t want everyone to think you’re a baby, do you? Come on, you can help me look for salamanders.
She had fallen in love then, and she had never quite fallen out.
She looked down at his hand where it covered hers. He was not wearing gloves--nor was she. The warmth and weight of his palm and the touch of his strong, slightly callused fingers did odd things to her breathing. She had the shocking urge to turn her hand and weave her smaller fingers with his.
He was beyond her touch. She knew it. She had always known it, even when she had stared at him in the woods twenty years ago. He had been the son and brother of a marquis--now he was the marquis, and she was just the vicar’s daughter, as common as a buttercup in the Knightsdale fields. Still, she had tagged after him like a puppy, happy for some scrap of attention. When he’d left for school, she had cried again--and again the tears had not helped the empty ache in her middle.
And then her mother had died and she’d had her sister, Meg, and her father to care for. No time for silly romantic dreams.
She glanced at Charles’s profile as they reached the entrance hall. No time, perhaps, nor sense in it, but she had dreamed anyway.
She’d been sixteen when he’d last been home. Not yet out. Too young to be invited to his brother’s wedding ball, but not too young to want desperately to attend and perhaps dance with Charles.
She had done the most daring thing--the only daring thing--of her life. She had slipped out her window, through the woods, and up to the terrace. She’d hidden in the shadows, watching the men in their white linen and black eveningwear, the women in their jewels and colorful dresses.
She had seen Charles come out onto the terrace with a London lady. Emma had stared at the woman. Her dress had clung to every curve and dipped precariously low over her full breasts. She’d been amazingly, shockingly beautiful. And then Charles had taken the lady in his arms and kissed her, his hands roaming freely over her body.
It had made Emma feel very odd--breathless and uncomfortable. Embarrassed and wicked and...fluttery and hot. She had hurried back to the vicarage as if Satan himself were after her.
She’d seen that kiss in her dreams a thousand times, but in her dreams, she was the woman in Charles’s arms.
Well, she should be cured of that affliction now. She took her hand off his arm as they entered the study. The servants did their best, but the room still smelled of old fires and dust. It had been more than a year since the marquis--the former marquis--had visited the estate.
“Miss Peterson, I apologize if I startled you just now.” Charles gestured for her to take a seat by the fire. She preferred to remain standing, forcing him to stand as well. He threw her a puzzled glance. Emma gripped her hands before her.
“My lord, it has been four months since your brother and his wife died, leaving your nieces orphans. Why have you taken so long to come home?”
Charles shrugged one shoulder. “Home?” His mouth tensed and he looked down at the desk. When he looked back up, his face was emotionless. “The girls were in good hands. I spoke to your father at the funeral. Nanny was here and the governess as well. Why would they care to see an uncle who was a stranger to them? And I truly thought they were still infants.”
“How could you have thought that? Isabelle is nine years old and Claire is four.”
“I was only twenty-one, a young man on the Town, when Paul had his first child. Beyond the disappointment that he had not managed to get an heir, I didn’t think much of it. And then I went to war. The little one--Claire--wasn’t born when I left for the Peninsula.”
“And do you intend to leave them again, now that you’ve seen them?”
Emma could see from his expression that was exactly what he had intended.
“You can’t, my lord! The girls have lived long enough in the care of servants. They need a relative in the house. You heard how much Claire wants a papa! Isabelle, too, though she is too reserved to say so.”
“And what about a mama, Miss Peterson? Surely the girls need a mama as much, or more, than they need a papa?”
“Well, of course they need a mama, but there’s no one available at the moment to fill that position.”
“No?” Charles grinned suddenly. “How about you?”
Emma felt as if all the air had been sucked out of her lungs.
* * * * *
Charles bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. Miss Peterson’s jaw had dropped like a rock.
“It’s the perfect solution, when you think of it, Miss Peterson. The girls need a mother, as you yourself have pointed out. They know you and like you--and you live nearby, so you’ll have the comfort of your own family at hand.”
And I find the notion of bedding you distinctly appealing. Charles smiled, trying to imagine how Miss Peterson would react to that statement. But it was true. He hadn’t thought of her in years, yet to see her now, to have her standing just inches from him... Perhaps it was the contrast--his memories of her as a little girl with her very grown-up figure. Whatever it was, it was distinctly erotic. He shifted position, turning away from her slightly to hide his reaction.
It was the perfect solution to his problem. Neither of them would be inconvenienced. It was not as if he had to spend a vast quantity of time with her. He had no desire to live at Knightsdale. He’d find something useful to do in Town and just come down from time to time to work on his responsibility to sire an heir.
Yes, he’d come down to take her to bed. To strip that ugly frock off her lovely body. To bury his face in her soft, shapely breasts. To...
He turned abruptly to the desk. His breeches were getting distinctly uncomfortable.
“What could be better, Miss Peterson? You don’t have a beau, do you?”
“Well, no, but...”
“And pardon me for saying so, but you are a bit past the usual age for marriage, are you not? As I remember, you are twenty-six, four years younger than I.”
Charles glanced at her, noting her heightened color and heaving bosom. Especially her heaving bosom. He jerked his eyes up to meet hers. Behind her spectacles, gold sparks smoldered under deeply furrowed brows.
Perhaps he should not have pointed out that she was firmly on the shelf, but surely it must be a factor in her decision. It was unlikely she would have a better offer--or indeed, any other offer.
“I don’t intend to be in your way, you know. I’ll spend most of my time in Town. You’ll only have to put up with my occasional visits.”
“Why bother to visit at all? You’ve been able to keep yourself away all these years.”
Charles coughed into his hand. Surely she saw the obvious? He looked at her again. Her arms were tightly crossed under her glorious breasts. She lifted one of her brows. How could he not have noticed before how delightfully they flew up at one end? Or how kissable her mouth was, even drawn into a tight line as it was now.
Would it soften if he put his lips over it?
“There is the matter of an heir.”
“What?” Both eyebrows flew up and then slammed back down. “What do you mean, exactly?”
The ice in her words was an interesting counterpoint to the fire in her eyes. Charles realized retreat was probably advisable, but he had gone too far into enemy territory. He had to brazen it out now.
“An heir. I’ll need one, now that I am the marquis. And I can’t very well get one if I’m in London, and my wife’s in Kent, can I?”
He ducked as a small china dog flew by his ear and shattered on the study door.
Copyright © 2006 by Sally MacKenzie