Excerpt The Marquess

 

Chapter One

May 1817

Flames shot through the lower windows and licked at the eaves. Smoke billowed in thick black clouds blending with the night sky. Women garbed only in cotton nightclothes hugged each other in horror and screamed hysterically from the lawn as a beam crashed in the interior.

All eyes turned with despair and helplessness to the slender female materializing in the upper-story window. Fire ate at the old wood just below her. Smoke nearly concealed her as she lowered another bundle of valued possessions to the ground.

“The woman’s mad as a hatter,” an auburn-haired footman exclaimed in disbelief as the servants dived to sort through the rescued valuables.

Dillian ignored the new servant’s comment as the falling blanket gave her an idea. Even as someone handed her the rescued bag of coins representing all her worldly goods—outside her father’s useless papers—her mind returned to the blanket.

Blanche played the role of martyred heroine well, but Dillian had no intention of allowing her best friend, cousin, and employer to die a heroine’s death. She had no intention of allowing her to die at all.

“Grab a corner of that blanket!” she yelled to the footman and the burly butler. “Hold it out flat so Lady Blanche can jump!”

A wail of joy replaced cries of distress as people grasped Dillian’s idea. When the lady next appeared in the upper-story window, they had the sturdy blanket spread between the fingers of a dozen servants yelling, “Jump!”

Dillian’s stomach knotted in fear as Lady Blanche hesitated. Fire had already destroyed the old wooden stairs, trapping Blanche in the upper stories. Flames had charred all the downstairs windows and worked its way through the centuries-old floorboards.

Only Blanche’s quickness had seen the household roused and sent to safety, but she hadn’t been quick enough to save herself. Blanche had always been too good for this world, seeing to others before she saw to herself. Selfishness was not a concept Blanche understood. Sometimes, it made Dillian want to scream. Right now she could scale that wall and wring her cousin’s neck.

“Jump, Blanche! Now!” she shouted over the roar of fire and hysteria.

For a brief instant through the swirl of smoke, Dillian saw Blanche turn despairing eyes in her direction. Then the wind caught the flame and sent it flying upward.

Screams pierced the night air as the figure in long blond tresses disappeared behind the inferno.

The blazing figure leaping from the upper window was barely recognizable when it finally soared in the direction of the blanket. Shaking hands lowered the net to the ground.

Tears rolled down the cheeks of the liveried footman as he smothered flaming night-clothes with the blanket. Auburn hair gleaming like the fire behind him, he lifted Blanche gently, and a path opened through the crowd.

Hysterical shrieks died to quiet sobs.

Refusing to resign herself to the inevitable, Dillian fought her way through the crowd to follow him.

Blanche couldn’t die. Dillian would slit her own throat and stake herself in a lion’s den before she would let Blanche die.

And if Dillian discovered Neville had been responsible for that fire, she would throw the grand and glorious young duke into the lion’s mouth ahead of her.

* * * *

Clinging to the rear postilion of the gleaming black barouche in which the footman was stealing Blanche from the physician’s care, Dillian shivered in equal parts fear and cold. The vehicle swayed through the darkness concealing a rutted, overgrown drive.

Was the footman in the duke’s employ? Where was he taking Blanche? She had hoped to a better physician, but that dream crashed with their race into the empty countryside.

Taking a curve at a reckless rate, the carriage tilted, and she grasped the rail in white-knuckled terror, not seeing the edifice looming ahead until the vehicle rumbled straight for it.

She widened her eyes in disbelief at the gothic monstrosity silhouetted against the starlit sky, like some fable from a storybook. Nothing else was visible. Not a single light glowed in the whole of that black sprawling monolith. Where in the devil was the madman taking them?

Already so terrified she could scarcely unbend her fingers from the rail, Dillian felt the carriage roll to a stop at this unwelcoming edifice. As the driver leapt down and pounded on a massive oak door, she glanced around for a hiding place.

She found no lack of concealment in the rambling thorns and untrimmed shrubbery at the base of the mansion. She had only to concern herself with keeping her gown from being torn from her back.

The gown was the least of her worries as she pried her fingers free and darted into the bushes. The worst of her fear centered on the helpless occupant of the carriage. She need only focus on Blanche and all else seemed trivial.

The insistent shouts and knocks of the carriage driver on the massive doors of the manor brought a creaking groan of aging wood. Beyond terror now, Dillian watched in astonishment as a tall lean figure materialized in the opening, the folds of his cloak flapping in the cold spring wind as he listened to the driver’s hushed arguments. Not until this grim specter loped down the stone stairs to remove Blanche from the carriage did Dillian realize her peril.

As the black creature carried Blanche through the gaping maw of the gothic cavern, Dillian realized she would have to enter after him.

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