The Marquess’ Forbidden Touch (Preview)


Chapter 1


“Oh, dear. I’m sorry, Lady Arabella,” Susan whimpered as if the pin had struck her instead.

“I think you might be turning me into a pincushion,” Arabella rubbed her shoulder where the pin had stuck her. Lady Arabella Fletcher tugged at the baby blue sleeve of her ball gown to rub the offending spot.

“Oh, no, I think you’re bleeding. Hold this down like that,” Susan ordered, tugging Arabella’s sleeve out of the way while she reached for a handkerchief to dab the blood.

Arabella held the sleeve out of the way while Susan tended to the wound. She thought about poking fun at the Lady’s maid for being so bossy, but she was too busy keeping the drop of blood from touching the fabric to bother.

Susan dabbed at the small droplet before setting the sleeve back in its place.

“There,” she said, smoothing out any wrinkles the shift in fabric might have produced.

It was a beautiful dress that gave off an iridescent shimmer as one walked throughout the room. It was a favorite of Arabella’s mother, the Countess of Edenwood. Lady Edenwood said it matched Arabella’s eyes perfectly.

Yet Arabella found it a pain—and more than just in the physical realm. She was continually fighting wrinkles in its delicate fabric as well as snags in the modest train.

Though the dress was from last season, Lady Edenwood had insisted it be brought out again and adjusted to fit the current trends. Arabella would have rather seen it finding a final resting place in her bedroom hearth.

“I think I should just wear the green one. I’m going to be poking myself all night. Perhaps the next ball,” Arabella suggested.

“You know her Ladyship especially told me to lay this one out for you,” Susan scolded in a motherly tone. “She would be furious if you came down in another, especially that green one. She thinks it makes you look sickly.”

“Well, then, perhaps I shouldn’t go at all since it clearly isn’t ready.”

Susan actually laughed out loud at the idea.

“I must admit that I was fairly impressed at how skilled you have been thus far at avoiding social engagement, but I don’t think her Ladyship will be letting you weasel your way out of tonight’s ball.”

“But all the pins, Susan,” Arabella spoke in a fictitious plea, “I am sure to return home in a spotted dress.”

“Well, there wouldn’t have been so many pins if you hadn’t carted me off to the bookstore three times this week alone. How’s a maid supposed to get any work done?”

Arabella smiled at the accusations thrown her way. Susan was nearly twice Arabella’s age and came from a vastly different background. Still, she was the closest Arabella had to a best friend.

“It’s not like I enjoy taking you from your work to chaperone me. It’s foolish, really, if you ask me. What could possibly happen if I went to a store on my own? And in my defense,” Arabella added hastily, “we only went to three different stores because the book I wanted was sold out at the first two.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better? I bet you already finished that one too, and tomorrow morning you’re going to be carting me off for another one. You know, I once heard a gentleman say that women who read too much made bad wives.”

“And what gentleman said that? Whoever it is, I will be sure to avoid him.”

“I fear most men feel that way, my dear,” Susan spoke with a heavy sigh.

“Well, then, I suppose I am doomed. Why even bother going? Help me out of this gown. I would much rather stay home and read anyway,” Arabella said sarcastically.

She motioned to the bed behind her, where her current read was safely tucked beneath her pillow. Arabella knew Susan wasn’t really averse to women reading, she only feared displeasing the mistress of the house.

Lady Edenwood was not fond of her daughter’s vivacious appetite for books and liked to share her opinions on the matter often with Arabella. Nor did she like that Arabella’s current selections came from the lending libraries’ controversial Gothic romance section.

“You won’t be getting out of this ball that way either, I’m afraid,” Susan responded.

She tugged lovingly on one of the gold locks that cascaded down Arabella’s hairstyle and rested on her shoulder. Arabella did her best to screw her face up in pain as if it really hurt.

“I hate these stupid things,” she huffed after a few moments of silence. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I am sure I am the only Lady in all of society who would rather be at home with a book by the fire then spinning and twirling on a dance floor with hundreds of eyes staring at you.”

“You must go because you must find a husband,” Susan said in an exasperated tone. “As much as I am sure you wish it, you cannot marry the characters in those pages,” Susan jerked her head back toward Arabella’s bed. “And to find a husband, you must peruse the meat market. All you need to do is find the diamond amongst the thrones…or is it rose in the rough…I can’t remember,” Susan said with a giggle and wave of her hand.

“And what if I do not want a husband? Why can’t I be like a man? They are free to come and go as they please, say what they wish, and do whatever they want. Gentlemen don’t need Lady’s maids accompanying them on outings, or mothers to push them towards matches.”

“Well, I wouldn’t be so sure about that last one. Even gentleman have the pressure of matrimony.”

Arabella opened her mouth to respond but was cut off by her mother’s sweet floating voice as she entered the room. Lady Edenwood always seemed to be in a hurry to go somewhere or do something. Often, the beginnings or endings of conversations were cut off simply because she was out of the room.

“Look, Arabella! It finally came today. I was getting quite worried, but it was worth the wait, wouldn’t you say?” Lady Edenwood cooed as she came into the room and held out the mask in front of her.

It was in matching blue silk with a gem lace overlay. On the right-hand side was a large white feather that curled at the top. It looked pretty ridiculous to Arabella.

“Go ahead and have Susan put it on now. It’s nearly time to go. It will be nice to see the finished look as well.”

Arabella waited as Susan wove the ribbons through the ringlets of her golden hair and tied it into place. It was surprisingly light and covered just over her eyes and the top of her nose.

“I think if you add some extra feathers to her hair, it will be just right,” Lady Edenwood said after studying her daughter for a few moments.

“I’ve already been jabbed all over with pins. Now must I also be feathered?”

“We want you to stand out, dear,” Lady Edenwood reprimanded as Susan got to work with the feathers.

“I don’t,” Arabella grumbled under her breath.

“And don’t think you can just sit in a corner reading tonight,” Lady Edenwood went on as she stole a glance of herself in the mirror. “If I have to, I will search you for novels before we leave. You are not bringing a book at all, nor are you allowed to search the Duke of Chiswick’s library while we are there. I want you out and about, preferably on the dance floor, for most of the night.”

“Oh, why bother, Mother? I’m sure I already know all the gentlemen that will be present tonight, and I can assure you that I will never fall in love with a single one of them.”

“You are nearly twenty years old and already halfway through your third season. Your father might have been patient with you in the past while you endeavored to find romantic attachments, but that time is quickly passing. You need a husband,” Lady Edenwood said firmly.

“Perhaps I am looking forward to the idea of spinsterhood,” Arabella countered. “I wouldn’t have to be shown around like a prize horse, nor would I be shackled to the whims and wishes of a man. I could do whatever I want.”

“Whatever you want?” Lady Edenwood repeated with a scoff. “My dear, your father may give you free-range, but what will happen when he has passed and his estate goes on to your cousin? Do you really think Fredric will be charitable enough to support you to the comforts and standards you have grown accustomed to? I can promise you now that he won’t. Your only chance for a secure future is within the bonds of matrimony.”

Arabella scrunched her nose up as the image of her cousin Fredric Fletcher came to mind. Son to Lord Edenwood’s younger brother, he anticipated his time as Earl just as a pig licked its chops before the slop was poured into the pen.

“Don’t wrinkle your nose like that, or it will stick that way,” Lady Edenwood scolded. “And I mean it, Arabella. You need to start seriously considering what your future will look like if you choose to stay reclusive at these social events. Better to pick a man yourself than wait until only the bottom of the barrel is left.”

Arabella heard the stink of bitterness in her mother’s tone and wondered if she was thinking of her own marriage. Arabella knew that her grandparents had arranged their union. Lord and Lady Edenwood had never laid eyes on each other until the day their engagement was announced. Though the arrangement had been made to benefit both families, it had brought together two people who couldn’t have been more polar opposite from one another.

Lady Edenwood was an outgoing and sociable person where her husband preferred to stay in the country shut up in his office. Where Lady Edenwood was enchanting, entertaining, and at times quite fierce in her opinions, the Earl was meek, pleasing, and short of words.

Arabella didn’t think her parents disliked each other, but they certainly didn’t love each other. It was that situation that Arabella feared the most. Not fierce hatred, but cool indifference she watched pass between her parents every day and knew would continue for the rest of their lives.

I’d prefer to be a spinster than suffer that kind of marriage!

Chapter 2

Edwin St. Clair, the Marquess of Haleshire, had barely walked through the front door of his father’s London townhouse when he was instructed to wait outside the Duke’s office doors.

He was kicking himself for instructing the carriage to take him to his family’s townhome instead of the residence he had let out for the remainder of the season two streets over. Edwin had made the decision to take up his own residence rather last minute and had guessed that with the short notice, nothing would have been ready for him there.

At least his father’s home would boast fresh baked goods, hot tea, and a comfortable bed already waiting for him to rest his weary bones in.

Edwin had traveled both day and night for the past three days since arriving at the Liverpool docks. His mother had written to him and expressed the need for his presence quite urgently or else forfeit the terms of the arrangement made between himself and his father, the Duke of Adenshire.

Still, he never expected that he would be forced to see his father quite so suddenly. He had at least hoped to change his jacket and perhaps brush off some of the traveling dust from his black thigh-high boots.

“You may enter,” a voice finally called from within the office.

Edwin threw open the two oak doors, hoping a grand entrance might detract from his current state of bedraggled dress.

“Dear Lord, you look a fright,” his father announced, despite Edwin’s efforts.

“I didn’t have time to refresh myself. I was under the impression that this was an urgent meeting,” Edwin explained to his father.

Before another word could be said, the office doors flew open for the second time, this time with squeals of delight from the Duchess of Adenshire.

“Oh, my Edwin,” she said, reaching out her hands and coming to him in a rustling of her golden skirts.

Edwin easily towered over his mother. After a failed attempt at wrapping her arms around his neck, she settled for wrapping them around his waist with a little giggle.

“I can’t believe how much you have changed in such a short time,” she said as she stood back to examine her son.

Tears glistened at the Duchess’s eyes as she touched the stubble that was growing along his square chin.

“Three years is not a short time,” Edwin responded with a chuckle.

“Three and a half years, to be precise,” his father countered.

He looked over to his father. It was hard to see the change in oneself as it was a gradual thing, but by being away from the Duke for such an extended time, it had left Edwin almost shocked when they first laid eyes on each other. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought it was his late grandfather sitting in the Duke’s high back desk chair.

There were a great many similarities between the Duke and Edwin. Both had the same tall, broad-shouldered stature that made them intimidating to just about everyone. They also shared the same square jawline with a perfect dimple in the center.

Unlike his father, who once had blond hair that had grayed in his time away, he shared his mother’s rich chocolate brown color with matching coffee eyes. His mother had always called them kind eyes, and perhaps on her face they were, but for him, most just found his intense stare a bit unnerving.

“Our original agreement, if you remember,” the Duke continued from behind his desk, “was three years to see the world, and then you would return home and do your part for the family.”

“Yes, I remember, Father,” Edwin did his best to hide his disdain for the matter.

“Do you?” the Duke asked as he raised a gray brow. “Because I believe we agreed that if you did not return in three years, you would forfeit your current living allowance. Yet you didn’t seem in any hurry to return home to us.”

“Your Grace, it is not always easy to travel such long distances,” the Duchess interjected in hopes of mollifying the tension between the two men. “Sometimes you must take into consideration ships and winds and things of that nature,” she continued.

Edwin smiled down at his mother and her feeble attempt to defend him though she seemed to have little knowledge on the matter.

“I’m sure it was only these limitations that kept our son away past his time.”

“Really?” the Duke scoffed. “Last, I heard you were taking up residence in Paris. Were the wind and waves far too dangerous to cross the channel in a timely manner?”

“Actually, I left Paris last fall. I spent the winter in Dublin. But you are right, Father, I wasn’t held up by natural determents. I simply had no wish to return as of yet. If Mother had not written to me and informed me that you were going to make good on your threats, I might not have come at all.”

Edwin always considered honesty to be the best policy. Even if a man expressed an opinion he disagreed with, at least it was the truth. There was nothing worse in his mind than a man who could not be trusted at his word.

He watched the unspoken conversation between his mother and father. She held her delicate little chin just a bit higher, daring her husband to reprimand her actions. He only held her gaze for a brief moment before relaxing back with a heavy exhale.

“Well, she was right. I had every intention of lessening your funding, maybe even removing it altogether. If that is what it takes for you to come to your senses, then I will do it.”

“Come to my senses?” Edwin scoffed.

“Yes. You are the son of a Duke and the future of this family. You have never taken your responsibility seriously. You’re twenty-seven years old, and still, you are unmarried. Most gentlemen of your age with lesser titles are already settled with a child.”

“Perhaps here, Father, but there is a whole world outside of this small country.” Edwin opened his arms wide to make his point.

“When I am gone, your mother and brother will only have you to secure their futures. It is time you started to take on some of the responsibilities of the Dukedom.”

“Fine. I am happy to take on some more responsibilities. I can take over the financial running of the estate. I can do that from anywhere.”

“You know what I mean,” the Duke said in an exasperated voice. “Right now, your sole responsibility is to secure our future posterity.”

Edwin let out an exasperated huff. Turning, he found the decanter of brandy and poured himself a glass. Walking across the long room, he relaxed into one of the couches near the book-shelved covered walls.

Edwin half expected his mother to reprimand him for getting dust on the furniture. When she didn’t, he settled further back into the cushion, relishing in the feeling of sitting without being jolted about in a carriage.

To be honest, his body was aching from being so long in the tight confines of a carriage. His build didn’t afford much comfort when riding in a closed coach. He much preferred his open-aired phaeton. It was not only much more freeing, but also a great deal faster than the carriage he had arrived in. Unfortunately, when one was in a hurry, they couldn’t take the time to consider comfort.

The Duke stood up, placing both his hands atop his desk. He glared down at his eldest son. Edwin guessed that he hoped the intensity of his blue gaze would impress upon him the urgency of the current situation.

Instead, Edwin took slow sips from his brandy, enjoying the warmth that traveled through him. Slowly he felt his body relax a bit more and with it came the intense sense of exhaustion.

“I am sure our son understands both the blessings and responsibilities that come with his lot in life,” the Duchess attempted to defuse the situation again. “He is here now. There is no longer a need for threats or tongue lashings, your Grace.”

“I’m not entirely sure you are right,” the Duke retorted. “I don’t think the boy has any intention to fulfill his end of the bargain.”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Edwin called out from across the room.

He always hated it when his parents discussed him like he wasn’t there. In his youth, it had been over letters sent home from school explaining how he preferred pranks over completing his schoolwork. As a young pup first out in society, it had been over the dangers of his phaeton and his complete lack of interest in marriage.

“The bargain was you come home and find a wife. By my estimation, you have a little more than half the season left to fulfill your end.”

“And if I don’t?” Edwin asked. He set his drained glass on the table next to the couch with a loud clink to reiterate his irritation at this whole conversation. He wasn’t some child that his father could order around. Yes, he could withhold the monthly income he received, but even that was only a temporary obstacle.

It was also a risky move in regard to social gossip. If the Duke were to make good on his threats, the whole Ton was sure to find out. It would reflect poorly on the whole family, something he was sure not even his father would be willing to risk.

Edwin was going to call his bluff here now and with any luck, he could be back on the road and heading toward the next adventure in a week’s time.

“Well,” the Duke responded with a smug smile on his face. “I heard you rented out the blue townhouse on Garden Row.”

“Yes, what of it?”

“How will you pay for it when I contact my solicitor and inform him to withhold all your income until the day you are Duke yourself.”

“You would leave your own son a vagabond on the streets of London?” Edwin asked.

His heart sank a little as he took in his father’s facial expression. The Duke was determined. He would go through with this threat; societal gossip be damned.

“No,” the Duke said as he menacingly intertwined his fingers. “You will be here, at my home, at my whim and pleasure, until the day I die. And, my boy, let me warn you, I am a very healthy man.”

“Don’t say such things,” the Duchess shot at her husband with a gasp. “Never joke about your health. It isn’t lucky.”

Both son and father automatically rolled their eyes at the mention of luck. The Duchess of Adenshire was a believer of just about anything pertaining to superstition. In Edwin’s youth, they had often joked that she might have been tried as a witch in another life, as she was so obsessed with the nonsense.

The Duke’s eyes met his son, and they both relaxed some of the tension that had built over the discussion. Leave it to the Duchess to find a way to make peace between the two of them, even if she hadn’t intended to at that particular moment.

“Look, I don’t want to force my hand on this matter, but I feel as if you have left me no choice,” the Duke said in a softer tone. “We must–”

“Ensure the line, yes, I know,” Edwin finished for his father.

“Fine, then we are in agreement. Find a Lady by the season’s end, and all this nasty business can be done with,” the Duke stated as he relaxed back into his chair.

“Oh, a wife isn’t all that bad. I rather think I made your father a better person than he was before me,” the Duchess cooed.

“You are completely right, my dear.”

“All right, I said I would do it. You two can stop pressuring me now. Tomorrow I will make it known I am in town…”

“Actually,” the Duchess interrupted, “the Duke and Duchess of Chiswick are holding a masquerade ball tonight. I was visiting with the Duchess just before I came in here. She already knows you’re in town and fully expects you to attend tonight.”

“Tonight?” Edwin repeated.

He looked down at the watch he kept in his vest pocket. It was nearly sunset outside the window, and he only had a few hours between now and the start of a private ball.

He would have much preferred to clean himself up, have an early dinner, and retire for the evening. Though the brandy had soothed some of his internal aches, he was still exhausted and in need of some proper rest.

“She would be very disappointed if you weren’t there,” the Duchess persisted.

“Even if I have been traveling day and night three days straight? Come now, I don’t think Cousin Mary is quite that unreasonable. I am sure she will understand and accept my apology for not attending tonight.”

“You have been gone for far too long if you actually believe that to be true,” the Duke scoffed. “This masquerade will be one of the pivotal events of the season. There will be more prospects attending tonight’s ball than any other event for the rest of the season, I would wager. Not to mention, I won’t be attending, and your mother will need someone to accompany her to the ball.”

“What about Andrew?”

“He is still in the country,” the Duchess explained. “We expect him in a few weeks.”

Edwin let out a low grumble. The last thing he wanted to do the day he returned home after a long, extended trip was to socialize with simpering Ladies and their overbearing mothers at a ball.

“I suppose I can see what is presentable from my trunk. The Garden Rowhouse isn’t ready just yet. Probably tomorrow, I would guess.”

“So take your own room,” the Duchess responded. “We will send up some hot water and shaving supplies. You certainly can’t go looking like that,” she touched his face lovingly again. “If I remember correctly, an unshaven face is bad luck when looking for love,” she finished.

Edwin chuckled. Though he had relished every minute he was away from home, he couldn’t help but realize how much he had missed his mother and her quirky ways.

“Well, then it’s a good thing that I am not looking for love. Lucky for me, I only need a wife and an heir. Love need not have anything to do with it.”

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  • It’s always fun to see how a story develops between two people who thus far are polar opposites – – a bookworm and a wanderer! Sounds like fun!

  • Great beginning. I like the characters already. Neither one expecting a love match. Can hardly wait for book to come out.

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