If You Wannabe My Marquess – Merry Farmer

It was a simple fact of nature that men considered it their purpose in life to dominate and manage women. Colleen O’Shea had seen the nefarious intentions of the male of the species play out over and over again. She’d seen it in the way the schoolmaster who had been hired to serve as tutor for her brother, Lord Fergus O’Shea, Earl of Ballymena, had fawned over Fergus and snubbed her and her sisters when all they’d wanted to do was learn. She’d noted it when the great lords of County Antrim had looked down their noses at the fine, intelligent ladies they asked to dance with at balls and soirees, as if all the ladies had to offer were shapely bosoms instead of bright minds. And she noticed it in the way Fergus had declared his intention to bully and badger all of his sisters into marriage, now that he’d returned to Ireland. He’d already managed to catch Colleen’s sister, Marie, in his marriage trap—although, to be honest, Marie hadn’t put up much of a fight. That had more to do with her new husband, Lord Christian Darrow, Earl of Kilrea, and his handsome face and teasing eyes, than any convincing Fergus might have done. Colleen, however, was determined to fight her brother’s meddling and the institution of marriage tooth and nail. She had no intention of falling victim to the domination that so many men still thought they were entitled to. Hadn’t they read the exciting works of the progressive women who were heralding a new age of female independence? Had they never heard of the lines of Annie Besant, Emmeline Pankhurst, or Harriet McIlquham? Fergus most likely thought his heart was in the right place as he scoured northern Ireland for men to marry his womenfolk, but as Colleen and her sisters well knew, he had committed one major mistake while attempting to appease them. In exchange for curtailing their freedom by forcing them to move from the seaside cottage, where the four of them had been residing, back into the main house of Dunegard Castle, he had given them all bicycles of the highest quality and most modern design. Said bicycles enabled the sisters to embrace their freedom rather than curtailing it. “Are you certain it was a good idea to strap barrels of beer to the back of these things?” Colleen panted, peddling the last few yards through the back alley behind Ballymena’s main street. She’d long since broken out in a sweat, and she was reasonably certain her legs wouldn’t support her once they stopped in back of The Hangman Pub and dismounted to deliver their order. “This is the perfect solution to our transportation problems,” Shannon—Colleen’s oldest sister—said, out of breath herself.

“Since Fergus forbid us to use the cart.” “Which one of you alerted him to our ongoing commercial activities?” Marie huffed, straining to pedal the last bit of the journey to the pub. Ahead, in the alley, Mr. Coney, the pub’s owner, had stepped out of the pub and was watching the four sisters struggle forward with their loads. He wore a grin that Colleen found far too indulgent for her tastes. “It wasn’t me,” Chloe—her youngest sister—said in a hurry. Chloe’s face was red from exertion, and her ginger hair was plastered to her forehead with sweat. It was likely that all four of them looked more like exhausted farmhands than the titled ladies they were. If anyone had seen the sisters of an earl loitering in the alley in back of a common pub, puffing from the effort of riding bicycles laden with barrels of beer, none of them would have withstood the scandal, regardless of what advances the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst was making for their sex. Shannon shot a wary look to Chloe.

“Perhaps it would be best if we pretended our brewing venture no longer existed at all,” she said with a narrow-eyed look. “But women have been brewers for centuries,” Chloe protested as they rode up to The Hangman’s back door. “It was an exclusively female endeavor all through the Middle Ages. I read about it in a history book. The book didn’t even have pictures.” Marie laughed as she shifted her feet from her bicycle’s pedals to the ground and leaned forward over her handlebars. “Is it only books without pictures that have authority, then?” she asked. “I’d be surprised if you’ve read a book at all recently,” Colleen teased her with a lopsided grin. “I’m surprised you deigned to leave your dear, delicious husband for more than a few minutes to join us.” “Christian believes it is important for a woman to have her own interests and activities, even when she is married,” Marie said with a mock imperious look.

She couldn’t hold the look, though, and dissolved into wicked giggles. “Besides, he’s a bit sore today.” Shannon rolled her eyes. Chloe blinked obliviously. Colleen knew enough to guess that Marie was talking about sexual relations, but it was beyond her why Lord Kilrea would be sore. From the gossip she’d heard, it was the lady who was far more likely to end up smarting as a result of the marriage bed. “I’m surprised that Lord Kilrea let you out of the house at all,” Colleen said, dismounting her bicycle with a groan. Fortunately, a young man from the pub joined Mr. Coney in unstrapping the barrels of beer and taking them into the pub so she didn’t have to exert herself further. “I’m surprised you’re able to have your own thoughts at all, seeing as you were so foolish as to fall into Fergus’s marriage trap.

” “Yes, Marie,” Chloe added with a scolding click of her tongue. “That really was unwise of you.” “I believe our dear sister feels she’s made a good bargain in trading her freedom for other things,” Shannon said, sending Marie a downright wicked look. Marie met that look with a teasing flicker of one eyebrow. “There are benefits to finding oneself under a man.” Colleen was certain she was speaking in some sort of double entendre, but she ignored what she didn’t fully understand and shook her head. “You’ll never catch me tripping up to the point where Fergus arranges a marriage just to stop a scandal.” “You may find yourself agreeing to Fergus’s marital dealings for other reasons,” Marie warned her with a sly look. “Who, Colleen?” Chloe snorted. “Never.

” “You ladies look as though you’ve been rode hard and put up wet,” Mr. Coney said once all four barrels had been taken from their bicycles into the pub. “I know it ain’t proper for the likes of you to patronize my pub, but if you’d care to come inside and sit a while, I’ll have Maeve make you some tea.” “A sampling of some of your weaker ale would be good enough for us,” Shannon said, looking more like a fishwife than the eldest sister of an earl as she wiped her hands on her skirt and followed Mr. Coney into the pub. “We need to talk about the price of this shipment anyhow.” Colleen was more than happy to leave the business dealings of their brewing enterprise to Shannon. Shannon was the one with the head for business anyhow. Colleen fancied herself the sister with the finest palate and routinely adjusted the recipe for their beer. She had no qualms at all—even though she knew she should—striding into the backroom of the pub and following Mr.

Coney’s handsome young assistant as he directed her to a table near the door that led into the main part of the pub. She accepted a halfpint of ale and settled in to enjoy it, Marie and Chloe sitting at the small table beside her. That was when she heard two familiar voices speaking low on the other side of the doorway. “I need you to keep the dragon for me, Benedict.” The man speaking had to be their cousin, Cailean O’Shea, Viscount Dervock. Colleen would know his melodious voice anywhere. “Of course, I’ll keep it.” The reply came from Lord Benedict Boleran. Just the idea that Lord Boleran was in the next room, probably looking all smug and handsome—no, that wasn’t the word she wanted to describe him—smug and haughty, had Colleen’s temperature rising higher than it already was. She could feel her cheeks burning.

“Lord Boleran,” Chloe whispered, then clapped a hand over her mouth and dissolved into giggles. “Oh, dear.” Marie rolled her eyes, her mouth tugging into a lopsided smile. She shook her head at Colleen. “What are those reactions for?” Colleen hissed. “You know I simply cannot abide Lord Boleran.” “Oh, yes. You simply cannot abide him,” Marie mocked her. Colleen made a sound of disgust, even as she pressed a hand to her stomach. The ale she’d been served was stronger than she’d thought it would be, that must be it.

Because there was no one in Ireland or beyond whom she hated more than Lord Boleran. Every time she’d encountered him, the man was stiff, morose, insufferable, and gorgeous. No, that wasn’t the word she was searching for either. Lord Boleran condescended to her in the worst possible way. He’d barely tolerated her visit several weeks ago, after Lord Kilrea’s father and brother were killed in that unfortunate carriage accident, when Marie had implored her to ask Lord Boleran what he had observed about the wrecked carriage. He seemed to disapprove of her every time their paths crossed in town or at a ball. And yet, he always made it a point to torture her with an invitation to dance or a passing hello when she did not wish to speak to him. Colleen’s sisters continued to stare at her as if they knew something she didn’t. She shook her head and deliberately ignored them, leaning toward the doorway to listen in on Lord Boleran and Cousin Cailean’s conversation. “…too big to put anywhere else,” Cailean was saying.

“And the poor thing requires such careful care and feeding, if you’ll pardon the expression.” “Perfectly apt,” Lord Boleran said. “And what with my recent land sale….” Cailean let out a sigh. Colleen didn’t need to hear him explain. They all knew that Cailean was strapped for cash and that he had resorted to selling off parts of his estate to pay his debtors. “The dragon will be better off in your care, for the time being,” Cailean went on. “I trust you to keep it safe.” “The dragon?” Chloe whispered. Colleen shrugged.

She’d never heard of such a thing. At least, not outside of the world of fantasy. “Your dragon will be welcome on my land,” Lord Boleran said. “Provided it doesn’t breathe fire and burn my barn down.” The two men laughed. Colleen was more confused than ever. Cailean was known to be eccentric, but if Lord Boleran was intent on indulging his fantasies…well, that was simply cruel. “If you will excuse me for a moment,” Cailean said. Colleen heard the sound of him getting up and moving away from the table. Silence followed, which suggested Lord Boleran was seated at the table alone.

“I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” Colleen whispered to her sisters. Before any of them could stop her, she got up, brushed her hair back from her face, squared her shoulders, and marched through the canvas curtain separating the back of the pub from the front. The pub was only middling crowded, which relieved Colleen. Most of its patrons were seated at the front, near the windows. The back corner, where Lord Boleran sat alone at his table, was shadowy. It was the kind of place where nefarious men gathered to concoct dark deals. If it had something to do with a dragon, then whatever deal Cousin Cailean and Lord Boleran were discussing must have been dark indeed. “How dare you?” Colleen asked Lord Boleran without so much as an introduction. Lord Boleran was halfway through swallowing a mouthful of beer when Colleen accosted him. The pure shock of her arrival caused him to spit beer back into his mug and to descend into a fit of coughing.

“Lady Colleen,” he said, his eyes going round. “Whatever are you—” “How could you play into dear Cailean’s delusions by saying you’ll house a dragon for him?” Colleen stepped closer to the table, working herself into righteous indignation. “Everyone knows Cailean is soft in the head.” “He is no such thing,” Lord Boleran contradicted her. For a split second, Colleen thought she saw amusement in his cold, steel-blue eyes. Too soon, his expression hardened into offense. “Your cousin is a genius of the highest order. But more importantly, what in God’s name are you doing in the back of a pub?” “That is none of your business.” Colleen tilted her chin up, but a quiver of anxiety shot through her gut. It truly wasn’t appropriate for her to be there at all.

She needed to get to the bottom of what Lord Boleran was up to by indulging Cousin Cailean, scold him as he deserved to be scolded, then leave. “What is this dragon Cailean seems to believe in?” “My lady, this matter is none of your concern,” Lord Boleran said with just the sort of imperiousness that irritated Colleen beyond all sense. “You cannot take advantage of my cousin.” Colleen snapped her back straight. “I will not allow it. And I demand you tell me what this dragon is.” “I have been sworn to secrecy, my lady.” Lord Boleran fell into perfect, genteel formality. Colleen couldn’t believe his audacity. “I will find out what the dragon is,” she told him, leaning in almost to the point where their noses touched.

“Mark my words. If you harm my family in any way, you shall pay the price.” “A grave threat indeed,” Lord Boleran said. Colleen felt heat pouring off of him. Heat and the most delicious scent. Damn Lord Boleran for always smelling like fresh soap and the sea every time she encountered him. Damn him for having eyes like a winter storm, eyes she could lose herself in. He was her enemy, and she would do best to remember that at all times. “Colleen,” Shannon hissed from the doorway to the back room. “Come away at once.

Our business here is done.” The reality of the situation closed in on Colleen. She glanced around. More of the pub’s patrons were paying attention to the way she accosted Lord Boleran now. She truly shouldn’t be there. If she or any of her sisters were caught in such a place, it would threaten their brewing business. As much as she hated to back down where Lord Boleran was concerned, she had no choice. “This is not over between us,” she hissed, holding up a finger. She met his eyes and held them in a look of fire. Angry fire, that was, not the passionate kind.

He stared back at her, his gaze unblinking as she backed toward the doorway. She kept her finger up as well, only lowering it at the last moment, before darting through the door into the back room. Once away from Lord Boleran, Colleen let out a heavy breath. She felt the same way she had when they’d arrived at the pub—out of breath and flushed. It was simply because Lord Boleran got her back up. The man was a menace. If she didn’t see him ever again, it would be too soon. At the same time, she was determined to find out what the dragon was. If Lord Boleran was a danger to her family in any way, she would put an end to him. THE MOMENT LADY COLLEEN disappeared into the pub’s backroom, Benedict let out a laugh and shook his head.

Colleen O’Shea was far and away the most unusual woman he’d ever known. She had the beauty and the breeding to be one of the finest ladies of the county, and yet she behaved more like a termagant than a debutante. Her appearance in the pub was startling for several reasons. First was the surprise of it all. What was the sister of an earl doing in a pub? Second was her physical appearance. Her face had glowed, as if she’d been engaged in physical labor a short time before, and her blouse had shown signs of sweat. Her bright red hair had been plastered to her forehead, but much of it was also wild and tangled. She’d clearly been out and about without the proper hat, which was shocking on the one hand, but completely expected behavior for one of the notorious O’Shea sisters. If he were honest with himself, Benedict didn’t know how he felt about the woman. She amused him and she horrified him.

Her antics made him smile and made him frown. She was a scandal waiting to happen, but he was eager to watch that scandal play out. And she was beautiful. There was no denying that. She wasn’t a thing like Emily had been. Emily had been all demureness and restraint. Emily had bowed to his will on everything. But perhaps that was why she hadn’t had the strength to endure childbirth. A woman like Colleen, on the other hand…. He shook his head and took a long swig of beer, banishing the thought.

It wasn’t his place to imagine childbirth for any woman, let alone Lady Colleen O’Shea. Though he wasn’t cold-blooded enough not to imagine what it might be like to get the wild woman in a condition to face childbirth. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost,” Cailean said as he returned to the table. “And rather liked it.” “Not a ghost. Just your cousin, Lady Colleen.” Benedict sent his friend a haunted look. Cailean laughed. “What in God’s name was Colleen doing in The Hangman?” “God only knows.” Benedict set his beer down.

“One would think that since Fergus O’Shea has returned to Ireland, his sisters would make far less of a spectacle of themselves.” “Ah. It’s Fergus’s own fault for giving them those bicycles,” Cailean laughed. “Though, if you ask me, those gifts were calculated on his part.” “How do you mean?” Benedict asked. Cailean shrugged. “Fergus wants to marry them all off. They’re all self-proclaimed modern women with an aversion to marriage. So finding husbands the traditional way will never work. My theory is that by giving them the means to get into trouble, Fergus has actually provided each of them with enough rope to hang themselves.

” He reached for his beer, but before taking a drink, he added, “It worked for Marie, didn’t it? She and Christian Darrow are blissfully happy. And already expecting the Kilrea heir, if the gossip I’ve heard is correct. Fergus planned his strategy and executed it well with her.” Benedict tilted his head to the side, considering. Cailean had a point. Lady Colleen’s presence at the pub seemed proof positive that she was getting into enough trouble to land herself a husband by accident. The thought bothered Benedict. He didn’t like the notion of Lady Colleen being any man’s wife. Or perhaps it was that he didn’t like the idea of the wild woman being any other man’s wife. He dismissed the dangerous thought, focusing in on his reason for meeting Cailean in the shadowy tables at the back of the pub.

“There was another matter you wished to discuss with me?” he prompted. “Yes.” Cailean grew sober. He leaned across the table to Benedict. “I find myself in a bit of a bind after the land sale.” “It went through smoothly, did it not?” Benedict asked. “As smooth as a fine, clear day,” Cailean reported with a smile. That smile dropped. “I now have more than enough money to continue my aeronautical adventures. Except for one problem.

I was paid in cash.” Benedict’s brow shot up. “Cash?” “Buckets of it,” Cailean went on. “It seems that the bank wouldn’t issue Farnham a line of credit, so he was forced to raise the funds in alternative ways. Alternative ways that resulted in a good, old fashioned chest of bills and coins.” Benedict eyed his friend warily. “He collected that money by legal means, I trust.” “He did,” Cailean confirmed. “The problem is that I now have a chest of money—like some common pirate—and I need a place to bury it until I’m able to hire a secure wagon to take it to the bank in Belfast.” “And how long will that take?” Cailean shrugged.

“I’ve wired the bank to ask them to send a secure wagon and an armed escort, but I’ve yet to hear back from them. I think I need to make the journey to Belfast so that I can request assistance in person. And since I’ll be leaving my estate, I need to store the money somewhere.”

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