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Her stepfather had been a poor country squire. Poor and not very bright when it came to business, Marian added to herself a trifle waspishly. That wasn’t in keeping with her new style of behavior, but surely she was entitled to think what she might for a little while longer.

He had been a kind and generous man. There, she had thought something pleasant to balance out her unkindness. Poor James Oglethorp had just been so mightily impressed at landing the beautiful widow of a marquess that he had lavished everything he owned on her.

The fact that the widow had been left with only a small trust fund for herself and her daughter had meant little until the crops had turned bad two years in a row. Marian quite sincerely believed that her stepfather had died of a broken heart when he no longer had a cent left to lavish.

So here they were, the next best thing to penniless, and their mother was no longer young enough nor wealthy enough to attract the best of suitors. It was left to Marian and Jessica to save them all from penury.

Marian was quite determined to do it by herself. Jessica was too tender­hearted to take any wealthy man who came along, but Mar­ian was no such thing. She had already gleaned enough information from her gossips in London to know which gentlemen to set her hat for. She had only to focus her at­tention on those few gentlemen until one of them came up to the mark.

She was clever. She could determine what a gentleman liked in a woman and be that, just long enough for him to fall for the act. He would be wedded faster than he could speak the words.

She had already decided that was about the only way to do it. Her wayward tongue would otherwise give the game away sooner or later. She would be sweet and demure and empty-headed until the band was on her finger and her hus­band’s pockets were at her disposal. Then she would set about educating him.

Still, there was Jessica to reassure. Patting her sleeve, Marian disposed of her sister’s arguments. “There have been Oglethorps in government since there was a government to be had. You will make a fine politician’s wife, I am certain. You need only look around and find the one you wish and smile for him to come tumbling to your feet We shall both be married by June, just you wait and see. Now let me find Lily and see what detains our dinner.”

Since the chambers were so small. Lady Grace and Lily had taken a separate room from Jessica and Marian. Not wishing to disturb her mother if Lily were already down­stairs, Marian hurried down the narrow hall.

Her mother had not been well since the death of her second hus­band. Marian was quite certain it was the pressing worry of their non-existent finances that had her in the dismals. Once they restored the family’s security, Lady Grace would be fine. Until then, she was best left undisturbed.

The front room of the inn was fairly deserted at this hour. Most of the patrons had settled in for the evening meal, ei­ther in the tap room or in private parlors. Apparently the last coach had already gone through.

Marian glanced down at the worn wool of her brown traveling gown and decided no one would look twice at her if she went toward the kitchens. She wasn’t dressed much differently from a servant.

Before she could act on that decision, the front door swept open with a rush of wind and rain.

“Miss! Don’t leave yet. Be so good as to tell me if there is room left in the inn. I don’t fancy traveling farther in this.”

Startled at being addressed in such a manner, Marian turned to gape. The new arrival wore the caped driving coat of a coachman and seemed to have lost his hat. His linen was loose and unstarched, and his boots were coated in mud. He wasn’t better attired than she.

He was of an unseemly height, and the haughty arrogance of his handsome features was re­flected in his manners. No doubt he thought himself God’s gift to women. Marian had little use for men and less for scoundrels.

“’Tis a pity then. Mayhap you’ll enjoy the stable in­stead.” She started for the kitchen once more, but a large gloved hand caught her shoulder and swung her around. She glared at him in astonishment.

“Whatever have I done to deserve such treat­ment?” He released her shoulder and began to peel off his soaked gloves.

“You exist. That should be sufficient reason.” Without excusing herself, Marian turned on her heels and once more sought refuge in the rear of the inn.

“I trust you don’t need this employment,” he called after her, “for I mean to tell your employer of your behavior.”

Fury colored Marian’s cheeks that he could think her no more than a common servant. She was the daughter of a marquess! Her gown might not be of the best quality, but surely he could see she was no ordinary maid. Without stopping to think, she swung around to face him again.

“I thought you a braying jackass when first you entered. I must congratulate myself on my perceptiveness. Please do talk to the landlord. I will be happy to speak to him personally and tell him I heartily recommend the stable for you. That’s where we always keep the ani­mals at home.”

Reginald’s eyebrows shot up toward his hairline as the young woman stalked out of sight in the direction of the kitchen. He had undoubtedly made a foolishly hasty judg­ment, but the young lovely had retaliated with an unex­pected and totally unladylike vehemence.

Still, he couldn’t help grinning just a little at her retort. Perhaps if she had been less lovely he would have found it less humorous. But delivered from rosy lips surrounded by a creamy complex­ion and enhanced by a wealth of very dark hair, the set-down achieved a certain savoriness he could appreciate.

Perhaps she was some lady’s maid. If so, she was proba­bly as unattainable as the lady herself.

Shrugging off the incident, Reginald rang the bell for the innkeeper. He seldom had the opportunity to exchange in­sults and witticisms with the fairer sex. He didn’t see any particularly good reason to begin now, or he would chase her down into the kitchen and see if she took as well as she gave.

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