His Runaway Marchioness Returns – Excerpt

Chapter One

Kent, England, November 1876

Lily was about to meet her husband. Hardly a noteworthy event, you would think, were it not for the fact she had not clapped eyes on him since the day she left for France, eight years ago. There had been no contact between them since, but she had spent a great deal of time in the last few weeks imagining how the encounter might play out. Would he have changed? How would he have changed? Would he think her changed? Not that any of it mattered. They had never really known each other in the first place. Once the knot had been tied they had stuck rigidly to the terms they had agreed upon: a secret ceremony; separate lives. Now it was high time to draw a line under their faux attachment.

Attachment! There had never been any bond between them, unless you counted her poor brother. Anthony had devoted the last days of his life to bringing them together. The marriage he had brokered had served its purpose and soon their relationship, such as it had been, would be erased from history. This encounter – re-encounter – would be awkward, but what she hoped they would both feel would be a sense of relief. She could never pay the debt of gratitude she owed him, but at least she could give him the freedom to embrace the new life which he had lately inherited. And for her own sake too, it was time to remedy this most irregular state of affairs.

As the carriage which she had hired in Folkestone completed the short ascent to the house in the Sandgate and drew to a halt, butterflies fluttered wildly in her stomach. She had no reason to be nervous, she reminded herself sternly. She and her once-husband were nothing to each other, save former benefactor and dependent. The fact that he had agreed so promptly when she proposed this meeting was a clear indication of his own feelings. It was time to wipe the slate clean, to sever the legal ties which bound them.

Yet the butterflies grew more insistent as she descended from the carriage and paid the driver. It was the house evoking those feelings, she decided, not the man waiting inside. Abbey Hill. This had been her home for three years. She had always loved it, the plain façade facing onto the road giving no hint of the wonderful unrestricted views at the back, where the garden tumbled steeply down to the pebble beach and the English Channel. On a clear day, it was possible to see the French coast. She had whiled away countless hours watching the ever-changing vistas when she first lived here: grey skies meeting stormy seas; pale-blue skies segueing into calm turquoise sea; scudding white clouds and dancing white horses. When the front windows were open the waves could be heard slapping the pebbles on the shore, a soft murmuring on calm days, a boom and rattle, a crash when it was stormy. In the latter days of their so-called marriage, perched on the window-seat in the drawing room, watching the Folkestone ferry plying backwards and forwards, she had hatched her escape plan.

It had been winter when she left, never thinking to return. Today, at the end of autumn, the sky was a perfect summer blue. The sea, hidden from view, could still be heard, the wavelets gently stirring the pebbles with a soft shushing sound. The breeze was soft, the sun low in the sky, with only a hint of warmth. Her fingers trembled as she reached for the brass handle on the gate. Watching the carriage drive off, she strove for calm. She was no longer that young, naïve woman dependent on a man who had essentially remained a stranger, for the roof over her head, the food on her plate. She had successfully reinvented herself since then, on her own and on her own terms. Something to be proud of.

The trembling abated. The butterflies ceased their fluttering. Lily tucked a stray wisp of hair back into place and opened the gate. It was time to draw a line firmly under the past.

Oliver put down the invoice with a sigh. He was sitting in the shade on the veranda at the back of the house. He had been trying to work, but his eyes kept wandering from his ledgers and business letters to the sparkling sea, the clear and unexpected blue of the sky, the tantalising glimpses to be had of France when the haze lifted, as it did intermittently. He couldn’t concentrate on anything with this confrontation looming. He was dreading it.

Lilian was travelling from Paris, she had informed him. Was that her home now? Their agreement did not permit him to know anything about her life after they parted, not even the name she had assumed, though Iain Sinclair, his man of business, knew how to contact her in an emergency. It had never been necessary. Twice a year, as per their agreement, she wrote to Iain, informing him that she ‘remained well’ or was ‘in good spirits’, and Iain paid her allowance and passed on the bland message.

Lilian had been a very young twenty when they married, with little to say for herself. Shy, retiring, biddable, pleasant enough, as far as Oliver could recall, but without any means of supporting herself and therefore easily put upon, which of course is what her brother Anthony had feared. She had needed protecting, and Oliver had been duty-bound to promise to do that. He’d kept his word, giving her a place to call her own, saving her from the only alternative fate on offer, marriage to a distant relative, a parson with two motherless children and an expectation that she would add to his brood. Lilian did not need a ready-made family, she needed time to learn how to look after herself, and that is what Oliver had happily given her. He was already wed to his business, and had neither the interest nor the time to share his life with anyone else. In that, he remained entirely unchanged.

Those three years of marriage seemed unreal to him now. This house had been closed up when she left. He had almost forgotten that he owned it, until he received her letter. He hadn’t recognised her handwriting. It had come as a shock, to see her signature. Lilian, she had signed it. No surname. The contents had been even more of a shock. ‘It is long past time,’ she had written, ‘for them to formalise the termination of their arrangement’. Why now? A second marriage, this time to a man of her choice, was the obvious reason. Her request shouldn’t have been unexpected. What was more surprising, when he thought about it, was that she hadn’t raised the matter before now. He was thirty-four, which made Lilian thirty-one, an age where a woman would be aware that her child-bearing years would soon be behind her. One more reason for him to feel guilty about what he was going to have to do.

On the subject of their divorce the process was clear enough. As far as the law was concerned, his wife had deserted him eight years ago, when she left the marital home. If only the law was equally clear on the subject of his problematic inheritance, he would happily do all in his power to grant Lilian her wish as quickly as possible. Heaven knows, she had asked for little enough when they were married, and nothing at all since she left, but the timing of this request could not have been worse, and he was going to have to tell her so. He wished to hell that he didn’t have to. If only there was some way to get both cases through the courts at the same time! He really didn’t want to have to ask her to postpone her wedding, but he simply couldn’t see any other solution.

The sound of a carriage drawing up made him leap to his feet and heading indoors, his heart pounding. He had never been one to postpone an unpleasant task. Time to get it over with. Half way up the stairs, he stopped on the landing where a window gave him a view of the road and the front gate. A woman was descending from the carriage. She was elegantly dressed in a mint green silk gown with a darker green ruffle trim and a huge bow over her bustle in the latest fashion. A little hat perched on top of her dark-brown hair, a frivolous construction of lace and ribbon that was so impractical it must have cost a fortune. Paris, her toilette screamed, even to his untutored eyes. Was this really Lilian? She looked far too chic. He didn’t recall her hair being so lustrous. But yes, the slim figure, the graceful carriage were the same .And the eyes – he had forgotten those big hazel eyes that had given her a doe-like appearance all those years ago, but which now looked – what was the word? Sultry, yes that was it, sultry.

Oliver’s image of an older, more faded version of the woman he had married could not have been further from the reality confronting him. The woman holding onto the gate, gazing up at the sky, did not look the comfortable sort who had been living quietly in the country, as he’d imagined her. She didn’t even look English. She looked exotic, fashionable, extremely self-possessed and even more disconcertingly, desirable. He cursed under his breath at his own contrariness. Now was not the time to become attracted to the woman who was here to discuss their divorce.

She turned suddenly, and he drew quickly back from the window. As he ran up the remaining flight of stairs to the drawing room, the doorbell clanged. Oliver sat down, picked up the morning paper to effect nonchalance, set it down again, then jumped, foolishly, in response to the light tap on the door.

‘Your visitor, my lord,’ the agency servant intoned, stepping aside.

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