This is a bit unedited and not the final version, but a taste of the upcoming MARKED BY THE MARQUESS.
“Don’t be a halfwit.” Sin shifted his weight. The girls were still eyeing his friend like a hunting dog did a fresh kill. Pampered, scheming coquettes, every last one. “Can we leave, or are there any other unsuitable women you wish to flirt with?”
“Every woman suits me.” Summerset gave him a lazy smile that set Sin’s teeth on edge. The hell of it was, his friend was right. Something about the sly fop had all the ladies raising their skirts. Luckily for the maters of the Beau Monde, his friend tended not to turn his attentions on innocent maids.
“There’s a game at Halliwell’s tonight.” Sin cracked his neck. “Our time would be better spent there.”
Summerset cocked a shoulder against the wall and scanned the room. “And miss a meeting with our esteemed friend? Who knows what delightful little caper he’ll send us on tonight. And stop tugging on your cravat. Not after my valet spent nearly an hour getting it just so.”
Sin scowled but dropped his hands. “It was nary a minute I let your man fuss over me.” And only because Summerset refused to leave his home unless Sin’s ‘travesty’ of a knot was rectified. “Liverpool isn’t showing. I’m done here. Let’s go.”
“One more drink.” Summerset swirled the liquid in his glass and sniffed. “But it can’t be this pig-swill.”
“Fine.” Sin squared his shoulders. “I’ll get you some wine. The good stuff.” Anything to escape this rout. And sneaking into their host’s cellars was infinitely preferable to holding up the wall like a bluestocking.
Without waiting for his friend’s response, Sin strode across the room, ignoring the raised hand of Lord Childers. The last thing he wanted was more stultifying talk on the merits of a Scottish referendum with a man who didn’t know Hadrian’s Wall from Stonehenge. The sounds of the ballroom disappeared as the door swung shut behind him. The hall was empty, and if Sin remembered the layout to this house correctly, the stairs down would be just around the corner. Without slowing, he plucked a taper from an elaborate silver candelabra sitting on a side table and trudged down the corridor.
He lightened his step, softening the sound of his boots as he made his way down past the kitchens and into the cellar. Old habits died hard, and entering unknown territory clomping as loudly as a shire horse was never optimal for survival.
He sighed. A mission right about now wouldn’t have gone amiss. Damn Liverpool for not showing. His mother’s letters urging his return to Scotland were arriving more frequently, and if he didn’t have a job soon to distract him, might become impossible to ignore.
The small wooden door to the wine cellar stood open and a dim light flickered within.
Sin hesitated at the entrance but heard no sounds. The steward might have left a candle burning if he needed to come down for more wine. If the cheap bastard Stamworth would let him.
He strolled down one corridor, bottles climbing on either side. A slate sign at the top of each shelf listed the province and year of the wines across its dark surface.
Hmm, a ’94 Bordeaux, an ’02 Malaga, a … Sin paused and lifted a bottle out of its slot. He blew dust from the brown glass. A seventeen eighty-three hermitage from the Rhone valley. Sin pursed his lips. He preferred a good dram of whisky to grape juice, but even he knew he was holding a quality bottle of wine. And if their host ever watered down this vintage, Sin would bloody the man’s nose himself.
“Drat,” a soft voice muttered.
Sin whipped around but his aisle remained empty. He padded to the end of the row and peered around the corner. The unmistakeable figure of a woman stood feet away, her back to Sin, the candle she held flickering precariously close to an escaped curl as she tugged at something by her leg.
“Release me, you infernal bit of metal,” she muttered.
“Madam?” Sin glanced around the cellar, searching for a companion. The woman’s gown wasn’t the rich jewel tones common of married women at these types of functions, nor was it the washed-out pastels favored by the chits making calf-eyes at Summerset. Was she a miss? “Are you—”
She whipped around, eyes wide, and pressed a hand to her heart. The candle in her other hand tilting ever closer …
Sin leaped forward, snatching her wrist, and eliciting a muffled shriek.
Her chest heaved. “I assure you I carry no coin upon my person. If your intent is to rob me, you will be sorely disappointed.”
Sin grimaced and dropped her hand. Summerset might jest that he looked a ruffian, but he was a marquess, damn it. He might refuse to wear the ballocks-hugging silk pantaloons and jewel-encrusted boots so many of the aristocracy favored, but he hardly looked a pauper.
“You were about to set your hair on fire.” He slid his gaze down her figure. She was young, early twenties, he guessed. Her dress had a modest neckline, and lacked the ribbons, bows, and other whatnot he so detested. Her form was sturdy, and the top of her head reached his shoulder. A very tall woman, indeed. “Missus …?”
She held the candle further from her body. “Miss. Miss Winnifred Hannon. And I assure you, I was not. I am most careful when it comes to flammable materials.”
“What are you doing down in Lord Stamworth’s wine cellars?” He looked over his shoulder, but still no companion or liaison of hers appeared. “Are you a guest of his?”
“I am.” She pressed her shoulders back. “My father is a friend of Lord Stamworth’s. And you are, sir?” She hiccuped softly, and pressed her free hand to her mouth looking adorably abashed.
“Sinclair Archer, Marquess of Dunkeld, at your service.” Lifting his own candle, he held it up to her eyes. They were a lovely light blue with deep, dark centers. He leaned toward her and sniffed. “Are you intoxicated?”
“I beg your pardon?” She glared up at him, her chin lifting in a manner that made him smile. “Why, I would never”—hiccup—“do something so disreputable.”
Setting his candle down, he leaned around her and plucked two bottles of wine from the top of the barrel behind her. One was uncorked, the other still retained its wax seal. He raised an eyebrow.
Cocking her head, she pursed her lips. “There is a perfectly logical explanation for those.”
“I was certain there must be.” He widened his stance and settled in to hear it. Truly, he should have spent the whole of the rout in the wine cellar. It was certainly more entertaining.
“A colleague of my father’s wanted to taste a vintage from 1812, preferable a Madeira, and was having trouble finding one on his home island.” The lass narrowed her eyes, looking as put upon as a tutor whose student hadn’t learned his tables. “Trade ships aren’t sailing to Java every day, you know.”
His lips twitched. “Of course not.”
“So, knowing that Lord Stamworth keeps an excellent cellar, and also knowing my father was loath to ask him for a bottle …” She raised her hands, like the solution was obvious.
“You came down to take it.” He nodded. He could appreciate such a direct resolution to a problem. “And the second, open bottle?”
She flushed. “Mr. Raguhram’s theory concerning the influence of volcanic eruptions on agriculture was persuasive. I wanted to taste it for myself.”
Sin blinked. Whatever he had expected to hear, that wasn’t it. Was she in earnest, or spewing nonsense due to her half-sprung state? He raised the bottle to the candlelight; half the bottle remained. “That was quite the taste.”
Miss Hannon pressed her lips flat. “I only had a sip or two. The rest I spilled over there.” She pointed over her shoulder. “Now, I really must be returning to my father.” She took a step forward and was pulled up short. She sighed. “Once I free my skirts from a nail.”
Sin returned the wine bottles to the top of the barrel. “Here, let me.” Squatting down, he pushed her skirts aside, ignoring her sharp intake of breath, and found where she was snagged. The slippery fabric of her gown refused to slide back over the nail head. Sin pinched the skirt above the nail and pulled, a loud rent echoing in the cavernous cellar. “There.” He stood. “You’re free.”
She thrust the candle into his hand and twisted her skirts, stooping to examine the muslin. She stared at the tear in her skirt, glared at him and slowly straightened.
Sin cocked his shoulder against the nearest shelf, preparing for his tongue-lashing. Women and their clothes. She’d been stuck; now she was free. Really, there was no reason for her to complain.
But she surprised him. Dipping her chin, she said, “Thank you, Lord Dunkeld.” She picked up the unopened wine and cradled it to her stomach. “Now, I really must be going.”
He held out a hand. “Wait.” He had too many unanswered questions for her to leave him now. “What is this Mr. Ragu…”
“Mr. Raguhram,” she provided helpfully.
“Mr. Raguhram’s theory? And why would tasting a bottle of wine help to prove it?”
“One cannot prove a hypothesis.” She tapped the toe of her beaded slipper against the dusty floor in a rapid tattoo and peered over his shoulder. “Multiple tests with positive results may lead one to give the hypothesis a high level of probability, but replicated tests can only serve to disprove a theory.”
“Is that right?” He should introduce this chit to Summerset. He was the chemist of their motley crew of spies and would find a woman with the same bent a delightful diversion. His gaze drifted down her well-built form. Then again, perhaps Summerset should stay well away from this one. She didn’t seem the sort to tolerate his friend’s easy virtue, and the earl might see her as a challenge. “You’re very decided in your opinions for one so young.”
He forgo adding ‘and for a woman’, although in England that was certainly true. He received nothing but weather reports from the Sassenach females of his acquaintance. One spouting about volcanoes and experiments was certainly novel.
All color fled her face.
Sin unfolded to his full height. “Are you al—”
“Fine.” She plastered an empty smile on her face, one that he’d seen practiced by society ladies the world over. “I’m merely repeating my father’s words on the subject. He is the man of science. If you have any questions about his or his colleagues’ theories, you should direct them to him.”
Voices echoed hollowly from behind them, growing louder and more distinct as the men attached to them neared the cellar’s door.
“… and I insist,” Summerset said.
“But it really isn’t necessary for you to come down here yourself.” A man, Lord Stamworth most like, sniffed. “My steward and I are perfectly capable of fetching more wine ourselves.”
Sin whipped his head over his shoulder but couldn’t see the entrance. Shelves of wine blocked his view. He looked back at Miss Hannon, who had frozen like a stag before a wildcat. He held a finger to his lips and motioned for her to go deeper into the cellar. If he could get Summerset and their host out of the basement without noticing her presence, all would be well.
Nodding, she spun. One long, loose curl of sandy-brown hair swung out and kissed the flame of his candle. The tendril lit up with a hiss.
“Confound it!” The candle dropped from his hands and sputtered out as he reached for her hair. He clapped at the flame, his fingers catching in her hair.
She stumbled into him with a cry.
Wrapping his arm around her waist, he steadied her. “Are you all right?” Nothing around her glowed, so he assumed the flames had all been extinguished.
Her head scraped against his shoulder, but he couldn’t tell if it was a nod or a shake.
Until the darkness lessened, and a light rose from the end of their corridor. Then he could see the horror etched on her face as Lord Stamworth called, “Winnifred? Is that you?”
Grimly, Sin set Miss Hannon away from his body and stepped between her and the men peering at them from down the aisle. Summerset’s face matched Miss Hannon’s in alarm. Lord Stamworth merely looked shocked.
Sin sighed, his shoulders sagging. He turned his back on his friend and faced Miss Hannon. “I’m sorry for this.”
“I don’t suppose if we logically explained the chain of events that led us here it would be of any use?” She set her bottle of wine down and tugged at the hem of her sleeve.
“I’m afraid not.”
She nodded once, and a veil of dead calm dropped over her features. He never would have guessed that only moments ago she had been near panic. “Well, then, no need to apologize,” she said. “We can only accept life’s challenges as they’re presented.”
A challenge? Acid burned in his gut. He supposed that was one way to look at it. A prison of societal expectations was another.
She smoothed her hands down the stomach of her gown and gave him a placid smile.
One he wished he could duplicate. His breath hitched. Who was this woman? She’d slipped on a mask as easily as a spy. Was she the lass who lectured about scientific process, the woman frightened of the future she’d just been thrown into, or the prim miss with an arsenal of false smiles?
His shoulders hardened to blocks. No matter. Whoever she was, she was about to become his wife.