Tamed By the Marquess – Scarlett Osborne

The child was getting sicker. Joanna Bagley could not deny that, much as she might want to pretend all was well. Hannah refused to eat. Her little eight-year-old body, not robust at the best of times, was wasting away. Her strange, beautiful eyes, so much like Joanna’s own, were glazed with fever. She was pale as death, except for the bright cherry patches on her pretty little cheekbones. Last night, she had begun coughing up blood. Joanna had begged Maggie Mae, the Traveller band’s wise woman, for herbs to treat her. Maggie’s draughts brought down the child’s fever a bit, but only for a while. Maggie Mae consulted Old Sal, who though blind and decrepit, had more knowledge of potions than any of them. Old Sal had no comfort to offer. “There’s a worm inside her chest, eatin’ away at ‘er, lass,” Old Sal told Joanna. “Happens mebbe the worm’ll consume the chile. There’s naught to be done.” Maggie Mae took Joanna in her broad arms and held her as Joanna wept.

“Joanna, girl. Mayhap it’s for the best. The little one’s brought naught but sorrow and shame into yer life.” “If the Spirit took her back, ye’d be able to wed a man of our own kind, a Traveller. Ye’re still so young. Barely six-and-twenty summers ye’ve seen, am I right? Yer life’s yet ahead of ye.” Joanna pulled out of Maggie Mae’s embrace. Her oddly colored eyes—one topaz brown, one green as jade—sparked with anger at the old woman. “‘Naught but sorrow and shame’? Is that all you have to say, then? About this little angel, this little innocent? Whatever I did—” Here Joanna broke down, her rage and pain making it hard for her to speak. It took a few moments to get herself under control again.

“Whatever I did, what I did that created a child, the shame of it is on me, not on my Hannah. And as for sorrow—whatever I did, there could never be sorrow in it. I love Hannah. She’s my soul, my joy, my life.” The wise old woman’s eyes narrowed. “And the child’s father? Did ye love him, and was he yer joy, too? More important, now, did he love ye back?” She pursed her lips, biting back her own anger at whatever man had hurt Joanna years before. “No. Or ye’d be with him now, would ye not?” “He couldn’t—” Joanna tried to defend the lover of her girlhood days. “Of course he couldn’t. Because ye’re one of us, lass, a Traveller.

Our people have lived on these British islands since long before there was a Britain. Back to the Druids, some say.” “But it’s always been the same—we’re good enough to train the Outsiders’ horses or mend their broken pots, but not good enough to mix their blood with. Afraid mebbe we’d give ‘em bairns who’d want to ramble from place to place like we’ve always done. Afraid mebbe we’d hex ‘em while they slept at night, and steal away with their horses and their gold.” Maggie paused, out of breath from so long a speech. “I never said he wasn’t a Traveller,” Joanna said haughtily. “Nay, ye didn’t. And ye didn’t have to. We don’t have much, but we have our own rules among ourselves.

No Traveller lad would leave you with a bairn in your belly and disappear. One of our lads would have stood right up and been a man about it. Happens all the time, and folks are understandin’ of the fire that burns in the young. Ye’d both have been forgiven and welcomed back to yer people, aye, and yer baby with ye.” “No, the father wasn’t one of us, girl. And the baby didn’t drop into yer belly straight from heaven. It had to be one of those fine, fancy lads the gentry breeds. Got ye into trouble and then ran. As they do. Even if it hadn’t been a Traveller but a common working man, a farmer’s boy or a stable hand, he’d have done right by ye.

No, it was gentry. And there’s many a man here among our own people who’d kill him dead if they ever learned the name of the man what shamed ye.” Maggie Mae took a slug of home-brewed whiskey from a rough wooden cup sitting near her. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, then offered the cup to Joanna. Joanna shook her head and waved the cup aside. Rotgut poteen from the Traveller stills wasn’t going to ease her pain. It went too deep for that. But Maggie wasn’t finished with her. “And there’s another thing. Just one look at the little lass and you can tell she has Outsider blood, and probably blue blood at that.

No Traveller ever had such fine little features, even yerself. Oh, I know, the girl’s the spit of ye in a lot of ways,” said Maggie, seeing Joanna was about to protest. “Like those witch’s eyes ye both have. But she’s as white-skinned and delicate as a fairy sprite, like one o’ them fancy ladies. And her hair’s not true black like yours. More like the mane of a dark roan horse. And the airs she puts on, when she’s feeling well! A right proper little miss, is our Hannah. Figure her pa, whoever he was, had the same airs and graces. We Travellers don’t like that in our young ‘uns. Ain’t fittin’ for our way o’ life.

” Hannah began to cough violently again. Maggie Mae started to put the cup of whiskey to the child’s mouth, but Hannah pushed it away. When the coughing fit subsided, both women sat silently for a while. Joanna absent-mindedly combed through her own long, black hair with her fingers. “Maggie Mae, you’re the closest thing to a mother that I’ve ever known. And a lot of what you say is true, though it’s bitter truth to me. But you’re wrong about one thing. He didn’t run because of the baby. He never even knew that we made one together. And I plan to keep it that way.

” C H A P T E R 1 A Very Disappointing Son and Heir Nine Years Earlier Rowland Albertson, 9th Duke of Gresham—who, like his eight ducal forebears, was the proud possessor of ancestral estates in England, Scotland, and Ireland, not to mention a rather disastrous property venture in the colonial West Indies—surveyed his only son and heir, Christopher, with something approaching dislike. How could he, a man of widely acknowledged political and pecuniary savvy, and the boy’s sharp-nosed, sharp-witted late mother, together have produced such a fool? He couldn’t deny that at the age of twenty, the young Marquess of Clydekill was a finelooking specimen, demonstrating the successful good breeding of generations of noble, untainted family lines. Standing a few inches above six feet without his riding boots, he had broad shoulders and slim hips that could carry clothes in a manner Beau Brummell would envy. The young man’s hair was a dark mahogany, the Duke’s own best feature in his youth. His glittering hazel eyes were his mother’s, but without the calculating shrewdness that had marred her beauty. He moved with the easy, unaffected grace of a fine young colt. In short, he was as handsome a young man as one was likely to meet in any noble’s drawing room in London or Bath. But why was he such a blasted fool? The boy had always been soft-hearted, always nursing little birds with broken wings back to health and such nonsense. No runt of a litter of pups ever starved with Christopher playing mother to it. To make more of a man of him, the Duke had hired a boxing tutor, pugilism being all the rage among fashionable young bloods, and good bodybuilding exercise besides.

Admittedly, Christopher took to the bodybuilding aspect of the sport, and his long reach and powerful muscles soon had him winning every match. But the damned idiot then takes pity on his opponent and calls the match a draw. He can’t bear humiliating someone weaker than himself. Christopher loved to ride—he had a way with horses, even unbroken ones. He could put a wild horse through its paces, just out of the horse’s love of him. But he would never use the whip. “I don’t need to, Father,” he had said once. Well, of course he didn’t. But that wasn’t the point. Didn’t he ever feel the pleasure of smashing something, of breaking a creature’s will, just because it felt so damned satisfying to do it? His father despaired of him.

What would become of the Dukedom of Gresham and all its holdings here and abroad, once the 9th Duke lay with his ancestors in the family crypt? Perhaps the future 10th Duke would hand it out piecemeal to every poor soul with a sob story to tell. No, that couldn’t happen, the current Duke reflected with relief. The entire estate was entailed. It could not be broken apart. It always had to be bequeathed in toto to the first male heir. Christopher would have no choice but to pass the entire Dukedom to a son of his own. But he needed to marry to accomplish that goal. In this, too, the young Marquess seemed determined to defy his father’s wishes. “All that I am asking— No, I take that back. All that I am requiring of you is that you attend the London Season this autumn.

You’re twenty, and it is time to settle down. Leave Oxford—two years of ‘varsity is enough for any well-bred man, and in any case, you don’t aim to become a parson or a don, do you?” The Duke answered his own question, a habit of his. “No. Your destiny, m’boy, is someday to be Duke of Gresham. Meet a young filly you can marry and breed with. Preferably one with a large fortune. It’s your only real duty in life, and you can’t escape it, no more than any of us could at your age.” “I’m not interested in wasting time dancing at London balls. Or in marrying, for that matter,” Christopher responded woodenly. “ ‘pon my word, young feller-me-lad, you’ll be telling me next that you don’t like gels.

Well, strictly between ourselves—” and here his father gave Christopher a coarse wink, “—I personally don’t care whether you like gels or boys, or sheep or horses, for that matter. Just father a son on a rich wife, and then you can take your pleasures wherever else you like.” “I like girls as much as the next man. But why does she have to be rich? Doesn’t love come into the equation at all for you, Father?” The Duke snorted. “Love? Gad, the worst marriages in the world all start with true love, and then go downhill from there. Forget love. For people like us, wedding and begetting are strictly business propositions. These days, the great families can’t rely on just their ancient status to stay afloat. They need massive transfusions of new capital. And marriage is the cleanest and most dignified way of bringing money into the family.

” “Don’t we have enough? Most people out there manage to survive on a mere pittance.” “Enough? It’s never enough. Christopher, do you have the slightest idea how much it costs to run all these estates? The people who work for us are demanding wages these days, unlike the old times when they served out of loyalty. They eat us out of house and home—they cost us more than they produce for us. And look at the world we live in. Every few years, another famine in Ireland, and the bastards use it as a reason to withhold our rents. How about the West Indies—do you know how much gold we lost when the slaves on our rum plantation revolted last year? They damn near burned the whole place to the ground, and all our stores with it.” “We should have kept in mind that rum is flammable,” Christopher observed drily. “Oh, you’re a wit, you are. A half-wit, more like.

Laugh while you can—these’ll be your own problems soon enough. Unless you marry well.” The London Season is the best show of prize females there is. If he can’t find someone rich that’s to his liking there, with his title and prospects and good looks, there’s something wrong with him. “In the meantime, boy, humor me and try to learn just a bit about how the Dukedom is managed, will you? I’m sure they didn’t teach you that at Oxford.” Christopher explained to his father that he already had a plan to accomplish just that. He said that the problems on their Irish holdings, in particular, tore at his heartstrings. Mothers and babies were being turfed out of their cottages for their inability to pay rent. They took to the road and had only grass to eat, till they and their children starved to death. “Father, I’d like to take a few of my friends and go to the family estates in Connaught— perhaps set up soup kitchens in the old family castle.

I think we should review the rent rolls and see if fairer rates could be managed, given the crop failures. When I become the Duke, I’ll have to take your seat in the House of Lords, Father. Maybe by sharing my observations about the Irish problem with Parliament, I could make my own contribution to the realm.” His father exploded. His face grew purple with rage. He wondered whether the boy had brought on an apoplectic attack. He worriedly clutched at his chest. “S-s-s-soup kitchens?” Gresham spluttered. “By Gad, Christopher, you’ll be the death of me yet. Get out of my sight before I thrash you within an inch of your worthless life.

” Christopher turned to leave his father’s presence. “Wait,” the old man said. “Wait. If you want to help with useless rabble, why don’t you give Brown, the estate manager, a hand clearing that Traveller crowd out of our woods? Every year, they come and camp here. Poach our grouse and game. Steal our horses. Put spells on our cows so they give sour milk. Pagan filth, that’s what those people are.” “They don’t do any real harm, Father,” the young man said quietly. “They gather here for a few months each year, getting ready for the county livestock fair.

Then they head to other parts before autumn sets in. They’ve been doing it since practically the beginning of time, apparently.” “Next you’ll be telling me they have as much right as we do to be on this land.” “Well, they were here longer than us—before the Normans, before the Angles and the Saxons, some say even before the Romans. You might say we’re the trespassers.” A damned fool, that’s what my son is. Too much book learning and not an ounce of common sense. “Help the estate manager run that filth off our lands. I’ve told Brown that any man, woman, or child among them that steals our game will be publicly horsewhipped, and if they’re repeat offenders, I’ll start cutting off the thieves’ hands. It’s my legal right.

The Prince of Wales hinted when I was last in London that he might visit us here during the autumn hunting season. If that happens, it will be one of the greatest honors of my life. And yours, too. Do you think I’d want His Royal Highness to run short of sport, just to keep that lot’s bellies full? Or for him to encounter such vermin while riding in our forests? I don’t think so. Now get out, Christopher, I’m sick of the sight of you.

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