To Steal a Marquess
The Sisterhood of Independent Ladies – Book Two
She returned to England to put him in his place—not to put herself in his bed.
Alec Douglas, Duke of Lionwraith, a war hero betrayed on the home front while he was away at battle, trusts no one and prefers his solitude. But when his sister begs for help because she is ruined, he vows to make the man responsible pay. When the vile rakehell proves impossible to find, Alec isn’t swayed. He can just as easily destroy his enemy with a subtler attack. The Marquess of Ardsmere’s business provides the best wines and rarest imports to the finest houses in all the realm—but by the time Alec is finished, West Belgium International will cease to exist.
But the despicable marquess can’t be the ruination of Alec’s sister, because the man does not exist. However, Lady Francis, better known as Frannie and sometimes as the Marchioness of Ardsmere, is quite real. Born in Belgium after a terrible accident killed her father, Frannie was introduced to the world as the family’s ward rather than an Ardsmere daughter, and a fake Ardsmere son was fabricated for her to marry to keep the wealth, lands, and privileges of the title away from a heartless cousin. The ruse has served quite well, but now some quarrelsome duke threatens everything because his lightskirt sister tossed her reputation to the wind and ridiculously named the pretend marquess responsible.
Frannie is not about to lose her lucrative empire or expose herself as a fraud. There’s naught to be done but assume her usual role as the imaginary marquess’s wife and put the deplorable duke in his place. However, when she meets Alec’s sweet, trusting sister, she can’t bring herself to finish the poor girl off or take down her handsome brother. Cursing her soft-heartedness, Frannie agrees to help Alec. Not just because he’s a tempting challenge she can’t resist, but also because his sister is kindness itself.
While tracking down the real foe responsible, Alec and Frannie come together in a complicated dance that not only risks riches and reputations but also their hearts. Frannie’s life of lies has always provided everything she needs—except love. What’s she to do when the man who steals her heart despises anything that isn’t true?
What do a skillful liar and a man drowning in bitterness have in common? Loneliness and pent-up passion. An exciting combination until secrets are revealed and everything falls apart.
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The northernmost border of the Lake District, England
June 1816 (The year without a summer)
She pounded the door knocker on its large metal plate three times. The heavy bronze paw of a lion with its claws unsheathed made quite the clacking bang that could be heard echoing into what was probably a high-ceilinged entry hall. Frannie braced herself for what she would face within Lionwraith’s lair.
The door swung open, revealing a tall, older man scowling down at her through bushy white eyebrows so wild and full it was a wonder he could see.
“Yes?” he drawled.
“Marchioness of Ardsmere here to see the Duke of Lionwraith.” Frannie took a step forward to enter, but the infernal servant remained rooted to the spot, blocking her passage. She pushed back her hood and glared at him. “Is your master aware that you keep his guests standing outside in unholy weather while you decide whether or not to let them in?”
“His Grace is not expecting any guests and is quite adamant about his privacy. Good evening.” The man stepped back to shut the door.
“Oh no you don’t.” Frannie charged ahead and hit the door with her shoulder, knocking it open wider as she pushed inside. Daisy scuttled in after her, followed by Mr. Judson and Mr. Marcus. Mr. Parkerton hesitated outside, obviously unable to decide whether to join the fray or tuck his tail and run.
“Stay out there and drown for all I care,” Frannie called back to the solicitor as she sidestepped Mr. Wild Eyebrows when he tried to take hold of her arm. “And you will not lay hands upon me, sir!” She fixed her sternest scowl on the servant, then took in the magnificent marble interior of the atrium that resembled a tomb more than a residence. Her wet boots would be treacherous on this floor. She needed to take care of her foothold or end up on her behind.
“Lionwraith!” she bellowed at the top of her lungs as she widened her stance. “Lionwraith! Come out this instant and face me!” Her roar echoed through the cavernous structure better than she had expected. It filled her with a pleasingly warm sense of certain victory.
Mr. Wild Eyebrows quick-stepped over to a black and gold velvet bellpull hanging beside the door and furiously yanked on it, no doubt summoning reinforcements to oust them.
Frannie held out her hand to Mr. Judson. “Give me your pistols. I shall fire them into the air until the blackguard deigns to acknowledge me.”
“That will not be necessary,” a deep voice rumbled from the landing above. A gray and white striated marble staircase gracefully curved upward to the next floor, flanked by matching columns that probably came from the same quarry. “You are?” the mighty voice intoned with such ringing authority that Frannie felt as though she stood before the Almighty Himself.
She moved closer, trying to see the speaker possessing the rich, throaty baritone, but the man remained hidden in the shadows. Probably afraid she would shoot him. “I am the Marchioness of Ardsmere, responding to your invitation—or should I say summons? That is—if you are the Duke of Lionwraith.”
“I am, and I neither invited nor summoned you.” He remained out of sight, irritating her even more.
She pulled three tightly folded letters from her reticule and held them up for him to see. “I have them right here. You and I have much to discuss.”
“Are you illiterate?” The notorious Lionwraith stepped into the light.
The sheer grandeur of the man looming above her made Frannie stumble back a step and momentarily forget his rudeness. He was fiercely exquisite, breathtaking with a regal aloofness that suited him well. No wonder his home appeared to be sculpted entirely from expensive stone and adorned with precious metals. Even the rarest wood wouldn’t suit his lair. His pristine white shirt of what looked to be the finest lawn was open at his throat. The material strained across the impressive width of his muscular chest. Buff-colored pantaloons tucked in polished Hessians showcased his long, powerful legs. His thick, unruly black hair somehow seemed out of place to Frannie. For some reason, she had expected the duke to be crowned with a tawny mane. Due to the Lionwraith title, she supposed.
She blinked, fighting the urge to turn tail and run. She would not. Too much was at stake. Once she gathered her wits enough to notice his heavy-lidded smirk, his insult roared through her veins.
“I assure you I am quite literate,” she said, doing her best to sound composed and forceful. “Are you always this rude?” She stormed closer, reclaiming the ground she had lost when retreating from his entrance. “You demanded a meeting.” She shook the notes at him. “Three times, in fact, over the past four months. Well, I am here to meet with you.”
“So I see.” He slowly descended the stairs with the graceful indifference of a royal deigning to join his court. “And yes, I am this rude when the invitations I extend are weeded away from their intended recipients.” As he reached the base of the stairs, he offered her a deprecating nod. “Not one of those missives was addressed to the Lady Ardsmere.” After a slow, dark look around the chamber, his chiseled jaw flexed as though he clenched his teeth. “MacGinnis,” he said to Mr. Wild Eyebrows. “Stand down and send the lads back to their duties.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” The butler spared a glance at the six footmen who had shown up in force to his harried ringing of the alarm. Even though each of them nodded and then left the same way they had entered, MacGinnis remained in place, obviously hoping for further orders on how to torment the unwanted visitors.
The duke shot another insolent glance at Frannie, although it seemed somewhat milder. “You and I have no business to discuss, Lady Ardsmere. It is your husband I seek.”
“Since my husband has been ill for several years now, and unable to leave our home in Belgium, I have handled the Ardsmere accounts in his stead. Handled them quite well, I might add.” She took another step toward him. “I have evidence that shows you as the culprit for the false accusations of smallpox that resulted in the burning of two of my ships and one of my warehouses. You and I have a great deal of business to discuss, Your Grace.” She removed her cloak, shook the water off it, then held it out for MacGinnis to take. “Shall we continue this conversation in the entry hall? After sitting for such a long carriage ride, I have no problem with standing while we speak.”
Something about Lionwraith’s demeanor changed. The strong, lean lines of his face hardened even more, as if he braced himself for a shift in the battle. “That is not possible.”
“I assure you, sir, it is quite possible that I am tired of sitting.”
He shook his head and growled, “Not that. The fact that your husband has been too ill to leave your home in Belgium for the past few years.”
“First you call me illiterate, and now you call me a liar.” Frannie stormed to MacGinnis and shoved her cloak into the startled man’s arms. “Take it. I am staying until your master learns some manners!” After a nod at Daisy, Mr. Parkerton, and the Bow Street Runners, she turned back to Lionwraith. “Well? What say you? Stand here and speak, or retire to a room where everything we say does not echo so loudly that it resounds in your staff’s ears?”
“To my library. Now.” Once more he cast a furious scowl at everyone present, then pointed at her. “You. With me. Alone.”