The Art of Tempting a Marquess – Meghan Sloan

Katherine Norwood, known to her intimates as Kate, chose to walk the long path through the hilly woods by her uncle’s farm rather than the short one that passed the fields of his cattle on the morning of April 3rd, 1812. ’Twas a fortuitous choice, for had she taken the shorter path (as her aunt would no doubt have preferred), Lord Thorburn would have very likely lost his horse. She was swinging her basket, full of wild yarrow she’d picked for dying wool later, when her bonnet ribbon came undone in a hard gust of breeze. She was tidying her dark blonde hair and restoring her bonnet to its proper position when she heard the horse’s alarmed whinny. Kate frowned, turning to try to locate the source of the noise. The whinny came again. Why, the animal must be near the marsh. Kate’s heart sped up at the thought. The peat bog south of the wood was notorious. Unwary travellers often never returned after trying to cross it. Kate took up her skirts and began to run. Sure enough, as soon as she emerged from the trees, a sight met her eyes that caused her to drop her basket. A man and a chestnut horse with a wide white blaze down its nose were struggling. The horse was sinking, and the man was scrambling to pull the animal free. But the man was in danger as well.

One step more, and he would join his mount in a muddy grave. ‘Ho, there, sir!’ Kate called, hastening to take a path she knew well to bring herself near to the unfortunate pair. The man startled and looked round. ‘I say, sir, please take care! The bog is treacherous where you stand!’ Kate was not so panicked that she missed the fine cut of his grey coat, or the handsome features of his face. This man was a gentleman, at the very least. Perhaps a noble. He was a few years older than she, with light brown hair that sparked with reddish highlights in the sun. His hazel-green eyes glanced from under angled eyebrows that gave him a sharp gaze, before he turned all his attention back to his horse. ‘My lord, ’tis the edge of the marsh where you stand!’ she tried again. ‘You must step back!’ She was close now, but the fellow paid her no mind, pulling on the horse’s reins in desperation as the animal sunk to its chest in the black mud.

It let out another terrified whinny. ‘Come to me, Merrylegs!’ the lord cried, his voice cracking with fear. Kate’s heart lurched to hear it. This gentleman loved his horse, it was apparent to her. How may I save them both? The animal is surely lost already. Kate clenched her jaw. No, I mustn’t think such a thing. We shall rescue the horse, I swear it. ‘Please, my lord, you must move to this area here. ’Tis far safer,’ she said, pointing to a spot more to the back of the horse, that looked identical to the ground he currently stood upon.

Kate had lived her whole life by this marsh, and she knew it like she knew the lines of her own hand. The gentleman gave her an exasperated look, but she met his eyes unflinchingly, and something in her gaze must have convinced him. He moved. ‘Good. Now, you must go to your knees and hoist Merrylegs from behind, whilst I pull from the front!’ ‘Extraordinary,’ the fellow muttered, but he did as he was told without hesitation. Mud stained the fine buckskin of his breeches black as he knelt. With care as to where she put her feet, Kate took hold of the horse’s bridle and met the lord’s eyes. Sucking in a deep breath, she gave him a nod. He pushed and she pulled, and the animal neighed and pumped his legs futilely. Bog water splashed over her dress, but Kate cared not.

She was determined to rescue the chestnut now, and nothing would distract her. ‘Again, my lord.’ They resumed their efforts. The horse seemed to rise for a moment, but then lunged down further than before. Kate let out a most unladylike groan of frustration. The gentleman said, ‘Perhaps if I got in with him, if I might touch the bottom, I could—’ ‘Perish the thought, sir!’ Kate countered in alarm. ‘This marsh is as deep as it is wide, I daresay! Merrylegs has found some purchase out of unusual good fortune. We mustn’t risk drowning you for all that.’ ‘Very well, shall we try again?’ Kate gave him a nod. ‘One, two, three,’ he said, and they heaved.

The horse put a hoof on the firmer ground in front of Kate, and her heart leapt. ‘Keep going!’ she shrieked. In the next instant the front half of the animal emerged with much splashing. The lord fell forward, half into the marsh, but ’twas enough, the horse pulled free, clambering to the solid path where Kate was. She was splattered head to foot in mud, and the lord was covered from head to waist as he got back to his feet, but they grinned at each other in triumph as the horse snuffled and panted, exhausted, but safe. ‘There you are, Merrylegs,’ Kate laughed as she stroked the white blaze, dotted with peat, down the horse’s long face. The lord caressed the horse’s back haunch and beamed at Kate. ‘I say, well met,’ he chuckled. ‘I thought I’d lose him for certain until you came along.’ ‘My pleasure,’ Kate smiled back.

‘Lord Thorburn at your service,’ the reddish-haired nobleman said with a cheerful bow. ‘I am forever in your debt, Miss…?’ ‘Norwood,’ Kate supplied. ‘I am Katherine Norwood, of the Norwood farm, not far from here.’ Now that the crisis had passed, Kate became far more self-conscious of the peat staining her clothes. As she touched her face, she reddened to feel wet bits on her skin. I must be a frightful sight. Lord Thorburn was the finest looking man she had ever seen, mud-covered though he was, and she wished very much in that instant that she had met him under other circumstances. Yet even if she had, ’twas a folly to dream it might have made any difference. She was a farmer’s niece, after all, no matter what her mother had always told her. ‘Allow me to accompany you home, Miss Norwood,’ Lord Thorburn said, still beaming at her warmly.

Kate felt the flush in her cheeks intensify. ‘Oh, you mustn’t trouble yourself for me, my lord,’ she said. ‘Nonsense. I owe you Merrylegs’s life, and quite likely my own. The least I can do is walk with you for a time.’ And so it was that Katherine Norwood, niece of respectable farmer Mr. John Norwood, was accompanied home, covered in black mud, by the equally soiled by eternally grateful James Rhodes, Marquess of Thorburn. Chapter 2 Kate ‘We shall never hear the end of it, I daresay,’ Aunt Mary said over dinner later that evening. Kate picked at her food. The rescue of Merrylegs had given her a considerable appetite, but this she had satisfied with tea and caraway seed cakes, which she and her aunt had offered to Lord Thorburn, who deigned to accept.

Her aunt had spent the entire time staring at the nobleman. ‘What did you say his name was? Thorberg?’ Uncle John said. ‘Thorburn,’ Kate murmured, poking the roast chicken in her plate with a fork. ‘It can’t be,’ Uncle John muttered. ‘I assure you that is the name he gave, Mr. Norwood,’ Aunt Mary said. ‘But that would make him a marquess!’ Uncle John exclaimed. Aunt Mary raised her eyebrows and patted her simple cotton cap absently. ‘Then I suppose his lordship, the Marquess of Thorburn, had himself quite an adventure in the local marsh this afternoon.’ ‘And topped it off with some tea and cakes at a local farm,’ Uncle John said, snorting.

Aunt Mary shook her head. ‘’Tis most extraordinary. I daresay the whole town shall hear of it before long. Alice and Peggy shall talk of nothing else, you can be certain.’ Alice and Peggy were maids in the household, and did, indeed, enjoy a good piece of gossip. ‘Why shouldn’t Lord Thorburn enjoy our cakes?’ Kate asked absently. She found her mind would not stray from the images of the afternoon: Lord Thorburn pushing the horse, Lord Thorburn smiling in triumph, Lord Thorburn walking beside her, leading Merrylegs, his face half covered in peat. They’d given him a clean shirt and invited him to wash upon arrival at her uncle’s home. How she had admired him, once he was all tidy again. What a relief when he agreed to stay, and she had had the opportunity to change, as well.

Despite their relative wealth compared to some farmers, the Norwoods only had one mirror in the house, an aging heirloom from Aunt Mary’s side of the family. How Kate had stared into it, before joining Lord Thorburn in the parlour. She’d studied her grey-blue eyes, and frowned at her skin—a bit more ecru than the snowy white she knew noble ladies favored. ’Twas the consequence of days spent out of doors, bonnet or no. There is nothing to be done about it, she had thought with pique, and instead she turned her attention to her hair, twisted in an unfashionable, simple chignon. Pulling free a few strands, she had endeavored to make them curl around her fingers, to no avail. With a sigh of frustration, she hurried to the parlour, unhappy with her looks but glad, at least, to be clean and presentable again. ‘There she goes with her ideas,’ Uncle John said fondly. Kate frowned, having already forgotten what she had said, so caught up was she in the memory of the tea with Lord Thorburn. ‘Indeed, I should think his lordship paid us a great compliment in taking tea,’ Aunt Mary said more frostily.

‘Accustomed to the best of everything, no doubt, and lowering himself to our hospitality just the same.’ ‘He was most grateful for my assistance,’ Kate pointed out. Aunt Mary’s lips pressed closed. Later, as Kate assisted her in tidying up, the lecture Kate knew was simmering within her aunt’s mind came forth. ‘You’ve a look about you I must say I dislike,’ Aunt Mary said. Kate drew in a deep breath, bracing herself for the same refrains she had heard since early childhood. ‘Lord Thorburn graced us with his presence, and I suppose we are to be thankful for it. It shall certainly entertain the town and all of our neighbors for the foreseeable future.’ ‘But…?’ Aunt Mary gave her a sharp look. ‘But you’ve the eyes of a mooncalf, my dear.

’Twon’t do in the least, you know, falling in love with a marquess.’ ‘Oh, Aunt, how foolish you must think me!’ ‘’Tis no fault of your own, I fear. Your mother turned your head with all her talk, telling you you were special, your blood was finer than ours, and the like.’ Kate looked down at the plate she was wiping, a pang of sorrow rippling through her at the mention of her mother. ‘Do you think my father—’ ‘Och, shush,’ Aunt Mary said with disapproval. ‘You know better than to speak of it, child. Now, I’ve my deliveries in two days’ time—’ ‘She said he was a footman, but—’ ‘Katherine Norwood!’ Aunt Mary exclaimed. ‘But Aunt, ’tis only that I’ve never understood it! The things she said. If she was but a maid and my father a footman—’ ‘What she told you was nonsense. The fantastic imagination of a troubled soul.

’ The pang recurred, stronger this time. Kate swallowed against a lump forming in her throat and put away the plate. Kate’s mother had died when she was six years old. Every day of her life, her mother had brushed her hair, telling her in whispered tones that she was more special than anyone she knew. That she was lovely because her blood was finer than mere farming stock. That she would do better for herself someday than her mother had—no life as a servant for her, no life as a farmer’s wife—she must reach higher. It made no sense. Katherine turned to the little landscape that hung by the kitchen window, a scene of the seashore she had loved since she was a child. How she admired the brushstrokes which brought to life the beach, the large rocks, the waves that crested and sprayed around them, the birds flying above. Running the tip of her finger along the bottom of the wooden frame, she wished, for perhaps the thousandth time, that she might go there, to that beach.

How she longed to know the scent of sea air, the cry of gulls, the crash of waves. The ocean called to her, and she liked to dream of how it might explain her mother’s fancies. Perhaps her father was no footman, but an admiral of the Royal Navy! Or a pirate, why not? Either would please her. Either would explain the deep sense of unease she felt with her life here on the farm. It did not fit her.


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