The Marquess’ Love Gamble (Preview)

Chapter One

London, England, Summer, 1810.

“Pretend you didn’t see her,” Juliette Harcourt said, glancing at her cousin, Emily, who laughed.

“But I can’t pretend I didn’t see her. She’s looking straight at us,” Emily replied, as Juliette flicked open her fan, glancing over the top of it to where her mother was standing with their host, Lady Rankin looking straight towards them.

“Oh… but she’s going to force us to dance. I know just what she’s saying – she’s telling Lady Rankin she’s beginning to despair of either of us every marrying. Lady Rankin will make some comment about their being plenty of eligible bachelors here tonight and suggest she could make introductions for us both. My mother will agree, and we’ll each be caught in the company of some ghastly bachelor for the rest of the evening,” Juliette replied.

She knew what her mother was doing, and sure enough, as she glanced again over her fan, she saw Lady Rankin gesture towards a gentleman standing alone at the far end of the ballroom. Her mother now advanced towards him, and Juliette knew it would only be a matter of a few moments before she found herself unable to escape the man’s company–however dull it might be. Emily smiled.

“Well, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ve already promised the next dance to Lord Wilmington. I don’t find him dull at all,” she said, and Juliette let out a whimper.

“Oh, Emily–don’t tell me you’re going to abandon me for the evening. I thought we were in this together,” Juliette exclaimed, but her cousin only laughed.

“What is it you’ve got against the possibility of a match? For all you know, the man your mother’s talking to might be the one for you?” she said, as Juliette glanced again over her fan to where her mother appeared to be interrogating the man at the far end of the ballroom.

She sighed and shook her head.

“Oh, but… you know I can’t, Emily. You know I don’t want it…” Juliette said, and her cousin now looked at her sympathetically.

“You can’t keep pining for Nicholas, Juliette. He’s been gone a year – he might never come back,” Emily replied, as now Juliette’s mother and her new introduction came towards them.

Juliette’s heart sank – what could she do? 

“Make my excuses, Emily,” she said, and her cousin looked at her in astonishment.

“But… Juliette, no… you can’t…” she exclaimed, but Juliette had already slipped away through the crowd, knowing she would face her mother’s wrath later on, but in that moment, not caring, either.

The ballroom was busy – a waltz having just concluded – but Juliette had no intention of being cornered. She did not know why she had come to the Rankin ball that evening – though her mother had insisted on it. Her heart was not in it, and her cousin was right – she was pining for a man who she had not seen for almost a year.

“You can’t go on like this, Juliette. You have to put him out of your mind,” her mother had told her.

But Juliette could not put Nicholas out of her mind. He was her friend Henrietta’s older brother – a strikingly handsome man, whom Juliette had known since they were children. The two had been friends, and as Juliette had grown into a young woman, her feelings for Nicholas had grown, too. She was in love with him, and was waiting for his return from Europe, where he had spent the past year on a grand tour. But when would he return? And would he be the same man who had left?

I can’t put him out of my mind, she thought to herself, as now she hurried out of the ballroom, hoping to spend the rest of the evening hiding from her mother and any potential “suitors.”

Juliette knew her mother wanted her to marry. She was twenty years old and had passed two seasons without furthering her chances of making a match in any way. There had been possibilities, of course – some more so than others. But in any prospective encounter, Juliette had always found herself comparing the man in question to Nicholas – always finding him wanting. It was not that she did not want to get married – she did – but the prospect of doing so to anyone but her childhood sweetheart seemed impossible.

“And yet he never showed any sign of reciprocating,” Juliette told herself – and herein lay the problem.

It was one thing to be in love with a man who loved one back, but quite another to be in love with a man whose feelings were impossible to discern. In their childhood, and in their youth, there had been no doubting the affection they shared, but as for something more – something now – Juliette did not know. She sighed to herself, glad to be away from the hustle and bustle of the ballroom, and now she found herself in the orangery – a large conservatory, where the Rankins grew citrus trees and exotic flowers. There was a sweet scent in the air – a heady perfume, and the atmosphere was warm, the heat of the day still lingering as the evening sun shone in through the glass roof above.

“I wonder if I can hide here for the rest of the evening,” Juliette thought to herself, for she had no desire to return to the ballroom and the attentions of her mother’s potential suitor.

She knew she had been rude, and yet Juliette also knew she was not prepared to settle for whoever her mother should choose for her. There had been talk – threat – of an arrangement being made, and Juliette knew she would never agree to such a thing, whatever her mother might say or attempt to arrange. 

“She wouldn’t go that far, I’m certain of it. And when Nicholas returns, it won’t matter,” Juliette told herself.

She had been there on the day of his departure for the continent, waving him off with Henrietta and Emily. He had smiled at her, kissing her on the cheek, and telling her he would write to her. But no letters had been forthcoming, and not knowing where he was or where he intended to go, Juliette had not been able to write to him, either. The last she had heard of him, he had been in Florence, and was intending to travel to Rome.

“Oh, I haven’t heard from him, either. Goodness knows how one gets a letter from Florence to England,” Henrietta had said, when Juliette had tentatively inquired as to Nicholas’ whereabouts.

“He promised to write,” Juliette had said, but Henrietta had only smiled and patted her hand.

“You know what men are like – all empty promises and meaningless gestures,” she had said.

Juliette had not confided her feelings for Nicholas in Henrietta. The two were friends – close friends – and yet Juliette did not know how Nicholas’ sister would respond to her seeking romance with her brother. Her feelings for Nicholas were private, and yet she had hoped they would be reciprocated, too. She had imagined an unspoken longing, picturing his return – the moment when he declared his love for her and proposed marriage. In her mind, it was the perfect match, for there was no doubting her love for him. But the more she thought about it, the less certain she became of his reciprocation. Did he love her as she loved him?

“Perhaps he doesn’t – perhaps I’m just being foolish,” Juliette thought to herself, as now she sat down by a large lemon tree and sighed.

Chapter Two

“I’d take it as a compliment, Alexander,” Gregory Beechwood said, as another pair of young ladies hurried past them, giggling behind their fans, and whispering to one another.

“I think it’s awful,” Alexander Dacre replied, shaking his head and sighing.

They were standing in the corner of the ballroom at Rankin Grange, and despite having made no moves towards seduction – or even a mere introduction – Alexander appeared to have caught the attentions of the entire room. That of the fairer sex, at least. Young women attempted to attract his attention, while older ladies eyed him as a potential suitor for their daughter – or themselves in widowhood. He felt like a prized animal on display, waiting for the highest bidder.

“But it’s hardly surprising, is it? You’ve just inherited your father’s title. You’re the talk of the ton. And isn’t it a truth that a man of good fortune, with title and good prospects, must be in want of a wife?” Gregory asked.

Alexander raised his eyebrows.

“No,” he replied, and his friend laughed.

“Oh, come on, Alexander. Would you prefer to receive no attention at all? And why shouldn’t you marry? You’re an eligible bachelor, and you could have your pick of any woman here. Some of them are very pretty,” Gregory said, glancing around the room, his gaze resting on a young lady talking to an older woman and gentleman.

“You’re welcome to her,” Alexander said, following his friend’s line of sight.

Gregory laughed.

“She looks very nice – a charming young lady,” he said, and Alexander groaned.

Marriage was the last thing on his mind, though he knew he would eventually have to do his duty in that regard. But for now, he was content with his life as it was – though the new responsibilities of his inheritance weighed heavily on his mind. His youth had been spent avoiding responsibility, but now, as the new Marquess of Cavendish, Alexander had inherited responsibilities previously unknown. It was taking some getting used to, and Alexander had no intention of complicating things further by introducing a woman into his life. He was content with the occasional flirtation, though he had no intention of doing so that evening.

“Then what are you waiting for? Go and introduce yourself,” he said, and his friend laughed.

“Perhaps later. Shall we get some punch?” Gregory asked, but Alexander shook his head, glancing towards the refreshment table, where several young women were watching him and giggling.

“No… I think I’d prefer my own company for a while. Would you excuse me?” Alexander replied.

He was tired of being looked at and whispered about. He had only agreed to come to the ball because Gregory was Lady Rankin’s nephew. He did not feel like dancing, or rather, he did not feel like asking one woman to dance over all the rest, knowing how easily jealousy could be aroused. Instead, he slipped out of the ballroom, breathing a sigh of relief at finding himself alone. Alexander knew the house well. He and Gregory had spent many happy days there in childhood, for Lady Rankin was also Alexander’s godmother. But just as he was about to make his way upstairs to the peace and refuge of the library, a familiar voice interrupted him.

“You can’t leave us to fend for ourselves,” his sister, Claire, said, and Alexander turned to find his twin sisters – Claire and Alice – looking at him indignantly.

They were ten years younger than him – in the prime of youth. Pretty creatures. They wore matching blue dresses, and from their identical looks, they were indistinguishable from anyone who did not know them. But Alexander could always tell them apart. Claire had a slight dimple in her nose, and Alice had the smallest hint of a birthmark on her neckline. Like Alexander, their hair was dark blonde, and their eyes were bright blue. He smiled at them, ever as their looks remained indignant.

“If you hadn’t noticed, you’re the only two women in there not continually looking at me expectantly,” he said, and his sister both pouted in unison.

“How can we dance without you being there?” Alice asked.

“Gregory’s there, isn’t he? Allow him to chaperone you – I give you my permission,” Alexander said.

Their mother had told him to keep an eye on his sisters, but Alexander only wanted to be alone, and he was certainly not about to return to the ballroom for the sake of Claire and Alice.

“Oh, but… why can’t you dance with us?” Claire said, and Alice nodded.

“Please, Alexander. Won’t you dance?” she asked, but Alexander shook his head.

“No, I don’t want to, Alice. I just want to be on my own for a while,” Alexander replied, and again, the twins pouted in unison.

“Well, if neither of us ever marry, we’ll… we’ll be a burden to you for the rest of our lives, and it’ll all be your fault,” Claire said, and the two of them now turned on their heels and marched back to the ballroom, leaving Alexander shaking his head and smiling.

He loved his two sisters dearly, but he had no intention of remaining in the ballroom just for the sake of their finding partners to dance with. Besides, Gregory was more than capable of chaperoning them, and Alexander was content to trust his friend with their honor, while he himself sought out some peace and quiet. He had intended to go to the library, but instead, he made his way through the house towards the orangery. Alexander had always been fascinated by Lord Rankin’s collection of exotic citrus plants, and he remembered he and Gregory once getting into terrible trouble for picking the last lemon growing on a tree that then never gave fruit again.

I wonder if there’re any oranges growing at the moment, Alexander thought to himself – for the thought of the sweet flesh and juice of the fruit made his mouth water.

But as he came to the door leading into the orangery, where tiled steps led down to the mass of plants and trees growing beneath the glass roof, he realized he would not find the solitude he craved there. A woman in a peach-colored dress was sitting with her back to him at the far end. He vaguely recognized her from the ball that evening, though he did not know her name.

“Is there nowhere in this house where I can hide myself away?” he thought to himself – but that was being unfair, and now he wondered if the woman, too, had sought refuge away from the crowd in the orangery.

Her dark red hair fell down the back of her dress, and now she rose to examine a nearby plant, revealing a slender figure. Alexander smiled – she was pretty, from the back, at least – and for a few moments, he watched as she stooped down to smell the flower, promptly sneezing as she did so.

“Goodness me,” she exclaimed, and Alexander could not help but laugh.

The sound caused her to turn in surprise, gasping at the sight of him standing on the steps leading down into the orangery.

“Forgive me. I’m sorry if I startled you. Some of these plants can be quite heady, can’t they? Several of them make me sneeze, too,” he said, stepping towards her as she blushed.

“I… yes, they can. But the scent – it’s like being in a perfumery. It’s quite delightful,” she said, as he pointed to one of the plants close to where she was standing.

“That’s one of my favorites – the orange lily. But I always marvel at anything growing here. It’s like stepping into another world,” he said, and the woman nodded.

“That’s why I’m here… well, because I wanted to get away. From the ball, I mean,” she said, resuming her place next to one of the orange trees.

Alexander nodded. He was doing the same, though he had not expected to find anyone else in the orangery, hoping to have it to himself for the remainder of the evening. He had intended to sit there and… think. Alexander had a lot to think about it, and he had found precious little time lately to do so. His inheritance had come as a surprise – his father had always been in rude health and inheriting the title so soon had come as a shock. He was now responsible for the estate, and for his mother and sisters. He had gone from a carefree existence to one where duty was paramount, and he had not found the change – and the expectations – easy.

“So did I. May I join you?” he asked, and the woman nodded, as Alexander now came to sit opposite her, smiling as he did so, for her had not expected to meet anyone in the orangery, and certainly not a woman of such pretty looks, and who seemed entirely disinterested in pursuing him, as so many others had done.


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One thought on “The Marquess’ Love Gamble (Preview)”

  1. Hello, my dear readers! I hope you have enjoyed this little prologue and you are eagerly waiting to read the rest of this delightful romance! I am waiting for your comments here! Thank you so much! ♥️

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