Tempting the Marquess – Nicola Davidson

“Standish? Can you hear me, lad? Open your eyes!” Ignoring the stranger’s harsh-voiced urging, William Hastings kept his eyes resolutely shut. Opening them would only encourage the pain hovering on the edge of his consciousness to explode into full-blown agony, and his head already felt split in two. Besides, why would he obey someone who couldn’t even get his title correct? He was Viscount Rydell, the heir. Father was the Marquess of Standish. “Standish?” the man repeated, accompanying his words with a gentle shake. “Do not t…touch him!” interrupted a tear-choked feminine voice. “And stop calling him that.” “Forgive me, my lady, but the fact is…” “The fact is, sir, you are n…needed elsewhere. I will remain with Lord Rydell.” “All right, all right,” the man said gruffly, his boots crunching loudly on the ground as he strode away. “William?” the woman again, nearer this time. “Come on now, darling, wake up. Please, please, wake up.” Slowly, carefully, his head was shifted onto a soft lap and his thick hair smoothed back from his forehead, yet the supremely comforting and familiar gesture from his childhood felt wrong, too. His mother was rounder than he remembered and smelled of rosewater rather than lemon.

Uneasily, he inched an eyelid open and discovered huge, glistening brown eyes staring anxiously back at him. No, not his mother, but her oldest and dearest friend Jane Forsyth, Countess of Westleigh. “Aunt Jane?” he mumbled, thoroughly disorientated. “What is going on?” “Oh, thank heavens,” she said, tears beginning to spill down her cheeks. “Hush now and rest, sweetheart, there was ah…an…accident. But you are going to be just fine.” William froze as every instinct he possessed cried foul at the blatant lie. Grown men of fourteen weren’t cosseted like they were still in leading strings when everything was just fine. Bracing his hands on the rocky, muddied ground, he attempted to sit up. He immediately regretted the action when his head swam and stomach threatened to unleash its contents.

Firmly pressing a fist to his lips and swallowing hard, he slowly lifted his head and pinned her with a gaze. “I don’t believe you.” “William…” “Tell me the truth,” he said, trying to sound firm and manly instead of terrified. “What happened?” Soft-hearted Aunt Jane crumpled immediately. “The innkeeper held us up for a half hour after you left. By the time we got here…I only saw them fleeing.” Them? Abruptly, images pounded through his mind. Two demi-masked, black-caped highwaymen appearing out of the trees, firing pistols in the air and frightening the horses. Mama screaming, Father grabbing her hand as the carriage jerked and shook, and luggage flew in all directions. Wheels crunching and snapping as they plunged over a small bank and into a freshly tilled field.

The door wrenching open. Cruel hands ignoring his parents’ pleas, dragging him out and away from them. Shouting. Far too much shouting, and more screaming. Cold silver eyes glittering with malice, a Frenchman who reveled in chaos and terror. Mocking laughter and an Englishman’s whisper of…vengeance? Something hard slamming into the side of his head. Utter blackness. “Aunt Jane,” he whispered, his stomach churning violently again. “Where are Father and Mama?” Torment aged her elegant blonde prettiness before his eyes, and she began to sob as she rocked back and forth. Horrified, William tried to scramble to his feet, but his gangly limbs were even more uncoordinated than usual, and embarrassingly he fell backward onto his behind like a toddler who hadn’t yet learned to walk properly.

Wincing at the burning scrape of broken rocks, he eventually hauled himself up and staggered away from Lady Westleigh. Several feet away, tall, imposing Uncle Andrew stood next to a covered cart and issued orders to grave-faced men. Further along, his longtime friends Gregory and Stephen were determinedly preventing their precocious little cousin Samantha from leaving the family carriage to explore, but he continued past them all. Across the road a flash of black caught his eye, and a chill raced down his spine at the sight of half a carriage wheel turning in the crisp spring breeze. Teeth chattering, he lurched down the bank, skidding and sliding in the freshly churned mud. What greeted him at the bottom would remain imprinted in his memory forever. A haggard-faced, dark-haired man, cradling a limp auburn-haired woman against his massive chest. And blood. So much blood the air was heavy with the metallic scent as it soaked their clothing, draining and pooling on the rough, lumpy ground beside them. “Father!” he screamed, falling to his knees.

“Mama!” As if caught in treacle, Richard Hastings, Marquess of Standish, lifted his head and dark blue eyes stared vacantly into the distance. “My Sophia,” he said hoarsely, a single tear inching its way down his usually emotionless face. “Gone.” “No! She’s just swooned, that’s all. Mama,” William pleaded, taking her pale, delicate hands and chafing them frantically, “Wake up! A doctor will surely be here any minute and everything will be all right. Just hold on!” Lord Standish shook his head, but the movement made him cough and a dark stream of blood trickled from the side of his mouth onto his formerly snow-white cravat. “Too late, son, and it’s my…fault. Didn’t… protect her. Should have. Man’s duty…to protect women.

Thought I knew it all…how to defeat evil. But I failed. Especially your mother. I failed her…completely.” “How can you say that?” William choked out through the giant boulder now resting in this throat. “You loved Mama, I know you did!” “Yes. And look…what happened. I couldn’t think in the crisis. Couldn’t act. She tried to save me.

Threw herself… in front of a goddamned bullet. Your mother is dead… because I was the worst of fools. So much less than I should have been.” “Father, no…” “Be quiet…and listen, boy. Swear to me…” Lord Standish paused, and a heavy, gurgling sigh escaped his mouth. More blood flowed, and his skin took on a frightening gray tinge. “What do you want? I’ll do anything! Please!” “Swear you won’t… make the same mistakes as me. Emotion makes you…vulnerable. Enemies use it against you. Duty, always.

Nothing more. No matter what…” He trailed off, his head lolling sideways as his breaths became shorter and shallower. Too soon, they stopped altogether. Shuddering, nearly numb with grief and so cold he didn’t think he’d ever be warm again, William leaned forward and gently closed his father’s sightless eyes. Then he sat back, bowed his head and crossed himself. “I swear.” L C H A P T E R 1 ondon, 5 April 1815 “If you won’t carry a pistol, my lord, at least take a few daggers. I hold grave concerns for your wellbeing.” Shrugging on his black greatcoat in the vast, lavish foyer of Hastings House, William Hastings, Marquess of Standish, quirked a brow at his butler. “I know it’s been many years since I made an appearance at Almack’s, Jensen, but surely it hasn’t gotten that bad.

” “Ha. Reliable sources inform me that the opposition are so cunning and ruthless even the French would take notes,” the staid older man replied in a dire tone. “You’ll be a plump chicken at Christmas. Toffees on May Day…” “Your confidence in my ability to fend off a few young ladies and their mamas is truly gratifying.” “Do not think of them as women, my lord. Perhaps…wolves. Yes, a pack of hungry, rabid wolves. Mark my words, there will be blood in the hallowed halls.” William suppressed a snort. It was true, some ton, and almost-ton families took the marriage mart exceedingly seriously.

Perhaps he should record some words for a tombstone, just in case. Here lies William David Richard Hastings, lord of the realm, codebreaker, and loyal servant of His Majesty’s government. Succumbed to a herd of stampeding spinsters and carnivorous chaperones somewhere between the refreshment table and string quartet. Mourned by his beloved… He ruthlessly halted the thought. No. While his foster brother Stephen Forsyth, Earl of Westleigh, and friend George Grenville, Earl of Trentham, had made love matches with their wives Caroline and Louisa respectively, that path was not for him. He would marry only to secure the marquessate with a legitimate heir. And as he rapidly approached his thirtieth birthday, that point needed to be sooner rather than later. He hadn’t given much thought to his future wife, other than she should be scandal-free, wellborn, also dedicated to duty, and a gracious hostess. Preferably a woman who would be a kind and doting mother.

For this she would be compensated with a generous allowance, gowns and jewelry, and a lofty position among the cream of society. But they would be amiable acquaintances. Nothing more. The Marchioness of Standish would never be put at risk, or sacrifice herself, because of love. “Wolves, Jensen? Mention that to their faces, and I will purchase you a knighthood.” “All I’m saying,” his butler replied, ignoring the remark with a disdainful sniff, “Is the dowager asks an awful lot of you.” William frowned. Surely everyone knew he would face down the hounds of hell for the woman who had taken him in and cared for him like a third son after his parents’ horrific murder. If said hounds happened to wear pastel ball gowns and heeled slippers, so be it. Besides, he couldn’t possibly have denied this request, not when Aunt Jane was so excited about sponsoring her niece’s come out.

It didn’t matter that he hadn’t set eyes on Lady Samantha Buchanan in over a decade, nor how she looked or what manners she possessed. He would nod approvingly and dance a set with her. The poor chit was starting from an unenviable position—not only was she making her come out much later than others at age twenty, but her parents the Earl and Countess of Claremont were notorious for all the wrong reasons. Lady Samantha needed as many powerful supporters as she could get. “Lady Westleigh asks nothing that I’m not prepared to do,” he said coldly, the topic closed as far as he was concerned. “Now, I’m off to—” “Excuse me, my lord,” interrupted a footman, hurrying to his side. “A note has just arrived from Whitehall.” “Add it to the other correspondence in my library,” William replied, not in the mood for one of those right now. “I’m about to go out for the evening.” “Begging your pardon, but the runner said it’s urgent.

” They always are. Since he’d first joined the shadowy branch of government that defended the realm against foreign threats, protecting king and country had come first. No request was denied, because they were all urgent, all matters of life and death. Every late night meeting, every page of unbreakable code, every translation of obscure dialect. Intelligence wasn’t a career for the fainthearted; for every moment of blood-fizzing triumph, there were ten times that of defeat or despair. If he were honest, sometimes the latter was so soul-destroying it was difficult to continue. There seemed to be an unending supply of English traitors, French spies, and those who created mischief and unrest for their own amusement or financial gain. “Very well,” William said, reluctantly taking the parchment, breaking the seal, and swiftly reading the short message. Standish, We must discuss an important matter without delay. The usual location.

W. Bloody hell. What now? Further news on Napoleon? The colonies? It had better not be another debacle with the Prince Regent. The self-absorbed dandy and shocking spendthrift was a barnacle on the backside of the throne. Crossing the cream marble floor to a small fireplace, William threw the note in. Watching, as always, until nothing but ash remained. “Is my carriage ready?” he asked, glancing back at the footman, who nodded hastily. “Then inform the driver we’ll be stopping at Whitehall prior to Almack’s.” A half hour later William slipped through a discreet side entrance of the stately building, striding up several sets of stairs until he reached a suite of rooms on the upper floor. Even during the day it was quiet up here—few men had permission to walk these corridors—and he knocked then entered a large, well-lit office.

“Well, White? You summoned me, here I am.” The Home Office intelligence coordinator, dressed in gray from head to toe and sporting faded ginger hair thinning by the day, peered distractedly from behind several piles of paperwork. “Standish.” Eyebrows raised, William settled himself into a truly uncomfortable wooden chair. The coordinator could be damned bloody aggravating, but he was arguably the most dangerous man in England. White wasn’t his real name, just a shortened version of Whitehall. Nobody knew his real history, but those who reported to him did know he was tenacious, cunning, unapologetically ruthless, and spoken of in hushed terms by even the hardiest politicians and generals. The fact that his attention was diverted right now could only mean one thing: trouble. “Your ghostly pallor and rather wrinkled clothing indicate several all-night vigils. Anything wrong in particular?” “Apart from the damned Corsican returning to Paris and rallying thousands to his cause? Nothing.

My apologies for delaying your evening, I’m sure you’re eager to get to Almack’s.” “That goes without saying,” William replied guardedly. White both distracted and irritable did not bode well. “Are you itching for a young bride yourself, or is it a regal chaperone who has caught your eye? Either way, I’d recommend first combing what remains of your hair, and second hiring a valet to assist with your wardrobe. Bit of color, a touch of silk, and your cause would be helped no end.” White’s lips twitched until he remembered he had no sense of humor, and his usual bland expression returned. “Lady Samantha Buchanan, the Earl of Claremont’s daughter. How well do you know her?” “Not very.” William shrugged. “The Claremonts often left her in my foster mother’s care as a child, but I was away at Eton then Cambridge, so I only saw her occasionally before she got forcibly sent north to some cheap and obscure school.

Both Lady Samantha and Lady Westleigh were devastated, but neither had a say in the matter.” “What do you recall about the chit?” “Hmmm. Sweet-tempered, a bit clumsy. Curly hair. Undersized. Enjoyed dolls and pony rides, but I believe the same could be said for most young girls.” “Nothing else?” “No scars, tattoos or known criminal associates I can remember, although she did try to befriend a stray cat once,” William finished, his own level of irritation rising. What the hell was all this about? “So it’s been over ten years since you last saw her?” “You are clever.” “So they say,” the older man mused. William refrained from hurling an inkpot.

Just. “Perhaps we could get to the urgent matter? I have no desire to duel with a patroness, or Lady Westleigh, if I’m late.” Steepling his fingers, White sat back in his chair. “Lady Samantha is part of it. I’ve been debating whether to involve you, due to the foster family connection, but it might well be the perfect cover. The central issue is her father. We strongly suspect, albeit without much solid evidence, that the Earl of Claremont is not only a supporter of Napoleon, but actively working on his behalf here in England to destabilize parliament and encourage invasion.” Christ. Aunt Jane’s dissolute younger brother a traitor? The idea was so preposterous, he could barely form the words to respond. “What? But he’s a foolish drunk…” “A drunk, yes.

Foolish? I’m not so sure.” “I see,” William said, chills icing his neck. “So how exactly do I fit into this?” “There is a chance Lady Samantha could be aware of, or worse, be involved in her father’s activities…” Holding up a hand at William’s exclamation, he continued, “…or she may be an innocent bystander. Starting tonight, I need you to spend as much time with her as possible. Use whatever means necessary to gather information and report back to me.” “No. Absolutely not.” “I beg your pardon?” “I’m a codebreaker and translator, not a damned interrogator. And you are asking me to behave very dishonorably toward my foster mother’s niece, a countrified chit only twenty years old.” “Quite,” said White, without a hint of regret in his voice.

“Of course, if you felt you couldn’t complete the task, I would understand. But I’d be forced to give it to someone else. Someone whose methods wouldn’t be as, ah, courteous as yours.” Silently, William wished him straight to hell. The coordinator asked too much and bloody well knew it, yet how could he refuse the task knowing who was available and might be called on? The thought of one of those jaded, deadly operatives threatening or even cold-bloodedly ruining a probably-innocent young lady in their information quest was enough to turn his stomach. “Very well,” he replied curtly, standing and sketching a bow. “I’ll do it.” “Excellent. I’ll expect your first report within the week.” As he departed, William’s fingers itched to slam the door.

This was insanity. The thought of spying on any young lady in the guise of courting her was abhorrent enough. But a young lady loved by the Westleighs, his own foster family? Exhaling heavily, he paused in an abandoned corridor and let his head rest briefly against the cool, pale stone wall.

.

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