Excerpt for Stealing The Duchess by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







STEALING THE DUCHESS



Written by Marie Higgins

Copyright © 2015 by Marie Higgins

Cover Design by Sheri McGathy





Edition License Notes

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author's work.





Other published stories from Marie Higgins



“Bargaining With a Rogue” – Regency Romance

“Royal Revenge” – Contemporary Romance Short Story

“Stealing the Duchess” – Regency Romance Suspense

“Secrets and Lies” – Victorian Romance Suspense

“Haunting Secrets” – Victorian Paranormal Romance

“Love Lost in Time” – Victorian Time-Travel / Suspense

“Waiting for You” – Paranormal / Time-travel Romance

“Becoming a Lady” – Regency Romance

“In the Arms of Danger” – Romantic Suspense

“Crazy For You” – Romantic Comedy

“My Heart’s Treasure” – Victorian Romantic Suspense

“Protecting The Heart” – Contemporary Short Story



The Gifted Series (Regency Romance Suspense / paranormal)

“Madison’s Gift” – book 1

“Katrina’s Sight” – book 2

“Felicia’s Spirits” – book 3 (not out yet)



Your Every Day Hero Series (Romantic Suspense / Romantic Comedy)

“Prince Charming is a Liar” – Romantic Comedy / Suspense

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Altar” – Romantic Suspense / Romantic Comedy

“You Are My Everything” - Romance



Where Dreams Come True Series (fairy tales)

“The Witch Hunt” – Young Adult Fantasy

“Champion” – Robin Hood / time travel

“Her Very Own Godmother” – Modern-day Cinderella, romantic comedy

“Keep on Believing” – Historical Cinderella

“Once Enchanted” – Rapunzel romance



Christian Historical Series

“A Walk in Heaven” – book 1

“Touching Heaven” – book 2

“Reach for Heaven” – book 3



Regency Romance Series – Sons of Worthington

“The Sweetest Kiss” – book 1

“The Sweetest Touch” – book 2

“The Sweetest Love” – book 3

“The Sweetest Secret” – book 4

“The Sweetest Challenge” – book 5

“Sweet Memories” – book 6



Regency Romance Suspense Series – Heroic Rogues

“Pretending You’re Mine” – book 1

“After the Loving” – book 2

“Wonderland by Night” – book 3

“Worth Fighting For” – book 4



Victorian Romance Series

“Love Me Always” – book 1

“Charmed by Knight” – book 2

“True Love’s Deception” – book 3

“Belong To Me” – book 4

“Love Comes Blindly” – book 5







Julian Stanford has a plan:

1. Steal the duchess and make her confess that her husband killed for a title.

2. Reclaim the title “Earl of Linden”.

Everything is fine until Julian steals the wrong sister. Now it’s time for a new strategy. Alexandria Templeton is a hopeless wallflower. With his care and nurturing, he’s certain she will blossom into a real beauty. She will also be a great asset to him while trying to find evidence against his cousin for killing Julian’s father and brother. Disaster threatens his well-thought-out plan, but it also threatens to destroy his heart.











PROLOGUE



It’s with deepest regret that I write to tell you…”

Julian Stratford stared at the missive in his hand. In two months’ time while he’d been away from home and working as an inspector for the Metropolitan Police, both Julian’s father and older brother had become very ill and died due to complications from the sickness.

An emotional knot tightened in Julian’s throat as he crunched the letter in his hand. Immediately, his mind argued what he’d just read. There’s no way Father and Forbes could be dead. Both men had been ill before and overcome the malady.

Unshed tears burned Julian’s eyes and he blinked away the liquid. This had to be a mistake…or a cruel joke. Regret sank deep into his heart most painfully, reminding him that he hadn’t spoken to his father for two years. When Julian had decided to become an inspector for the Metropolitan Police, his father was livid. The Earl of Linden didn’t want any son of his to be something as lowly as an inspector.

Julian had never understood why his father thought this way. Metropolitan Police had an excellent reputation. Many people depended on their service and protection. However, out of the three choices Julian had to pick for his occupation—a clergyman, military, or a police inspector—he’d chosen the latter since that had been his dream for a long time.

Sorrow washed over him, and he fought back the tears. Apparently, he could no longer be a police inspector. He needed to return home to North Devon and take over his new role as Earl of Linden.

Captain Orwood had sent Julian and two other men on a missing person assignment. He had narrowed down their leads, and the three of them rode toward the empty warehouse where Julian suspected the missing person was being held against his will. Before he’d left the office, a letter arrived, but Julian hadn’t made time to read it. Until now.

“The warehouse is up ahead,” John Campbell said as he slowed down his horse.

Julian tried to pull himself out of his misery and focus on the assignment. He couldn’t be distracted now. Not when they were going to arrest a kidnapper.

The warehouse stood close to a shipping yard, except they had been out of business for a few months. Thankfully, not many other businesses were located nearby, which gave the three police inspectors more room to sneak around and peek through the windows.

As Julian stopped his horse and dismounted, a dismal thought crossed his mind, wrenching his heart. This would be his last case. Once this was over, he’d return home and assume the new position as Earl.

A painful pound grew inside his head. Would he bring justice to his father’s title at all? Never in his life had he imagined the title being passed to him. Julian had always figured once his father passed on, Forbes would take the title. In Julian’s world, his father and older brother would live forever, while Julian continued to live out his dreams. And yet, God had a strange way of tilting Julian’s life off balance.

He must accept the title. If not, it would go to his ill-mannered cousin, Martin Hinsdale, who couldn’t stroll by a gaming table without sitting down and making a few bets. If his cousin took over the title, the Stanford’s lands and money would be squandered away within a year.

The other two inspectors with Julian withdrew their pistols. Once again, he shook his mind back to the present. He could only handle one thing at a time, and currently, the kidnapper needed to be caught.

Stepping carefully toward the warehouse, all three men only communicated with their eyes and head movements. Julian nodded for each man to take a different window. Just as he reached a window, a loud boom ripped through the silence.

Immediately, Julian peered toward the direction of the sound. Coming toward them was a cannonball. Shock vibrated through him. Who in the blazes would set off a cannonball here?

Cursing under his breath, he yelled at the other two men to run. Julian didn’t make it very far before the cannonball hit nearby. As Julian flew through the air, pain seared his body, especially his legs.

When he landed in a hard thump on the ground, only one thing was on his mind before darkness settled over him. Julian realized he would soon be with his father and brother in Heaven.









ONE



North Devon, England



The wind outside whipped around the small cottage where she’d lived since she was a child, but tonight, the sound didn’t comfort her. Every member of her family was dead, killed by the murderous hand of the man who’d captivated her so completely.

For certain, she was next.

Heavy footsteps made the warped floorboards in the hallway creak. The terrifying sound pierced right through her. Clutching the dagger in her shaky hands, she stood behind the closed door in her bedchambers. She wouldn’t let them take her without a fight. It didn’t matter that her heartbeat pounded so fast she could scarcely breathe, or that her limbs shook hard enough to break her bones, she was determined to win.

Mr. Woodland—the handsome man she’d met yesterday—was to blame for the turmoil currently surrounding her, she just knew it. He’d been too charming, too sweet, and had literally swept her off her feet. She’d always known how to talk to men, but this man had seemed out of her area of expertise for some reason. Now she surmised his purpose. He’d wanted to get close to her…but for what, she wished she knew.

Why hadn’t she seen his trickery through his sugar-coated words? Never again would she trust a man who charmed easily and swept her mind into oblivion. But now it was too late. She feared for her own safety.

Alexandria Templeton stared at the passage she’d just written and nibbled on her bottom lip. As she thought about the plot—or what she’d plotted so far—this passage didn’t make much sense. Why had the woman’s family died? And more importantly, why was this man, Mr. Woodland, trying to kill off her heroine?

Alexandria set her quill down on the desk and released a frustrated breath between her lips. Once again, she’d started a story before she had time to really think about what was going to happen to her characters, and why. In the four years she’d been writing stories, she should have learned not to write before she was ready.

Then again, she knew why she hadn’t learned the lesson yet. Writing was her retreat from reality. Every day she anticipated the moment when she entered her own little world and created her characters, making them do the things she wanted them to do. It was what she enjoyed. What she loved more than anything.

Closing her eyes, she stretched her neck and rolled her head from side to side, releasing the tension building in her muscles. As she fluttered her eyelids open, she gazed out of the nearest window. A baby blue sky grabbed her attention first, and then the nearest tree standing so still. Thankfully, there was no rain and what appeared to be no summer wind. This would be the perfect weather to ride her horse, Buttercup.

She scooted her chair away from the desk and stood. She placed the lid on her inkwell and the quill back in its cup before hurrying to change into her riding habit. Galloping around the estate on days like this really cleared her head and made her think better. Especially when working on her next mystery novel. Her dream was to have someone notice her writings, and one day want to publish them. Until then, she would keep reaching for her unobtainable.

She donned her riding habit with the lavender short-waist jacket, black skirt, and matching purple bonnet. Fitting her hands into the purple gloves, she left her room. As she walked down the hall, the door to her sister’s room opened and out stepped Alexandria’s brother-in-law, Martin Hinsdale, newly appointed Earl of Linden. A frown creased his expression as he dug his slender fingers in his bushy blonde hair and scratched his head.

Her heart squeezed with emotion. Her sister must still be quite ill. Her brother-in-law had worn that expression for the last five days. She prayed nothing life-threatening was wrong with her sister. Frustration mixed with her concern. Martin refused to keep Alexandria informed as she wished to be, nor would he allow her to visit Joanna.

Martin raised his head and his gaze locked with Alexandria’s. His glare pierced right through her as he nodded and proceeded up the hall. She had never seen him smile except when he gazed upon her sister. It was too bad he didn’t do more of that because he was a better looking man when he was happy.

She really wished he would talk to her more. It irritated her that he was so secretive about her sister’s condition. Bunching her hands into fists, she grumbled under her breath. This time, she wouldn’t let him stop her from seeing Joanna…even if she had to sneak behind his back to do it.

Taking slow steps, she waited for him to disappear into his study and close the door. Quickly, she turned and hurried to her sister’s bedchamber. She opened the door slowly, hoping the hinges wouldn’t squeak. Thankfully, no sound came. As she stepped into the room, she held her breath and waited for the floorboards to groan. Once again, she was relieved when silence greeted her.

Joanna lay on her bed, her arms resting outside of the many blankets covering her, displaying a pink gown with a ruffled neckline, fluffy sleeves, and pink ribbons around the wrists. Joanna’s blonde hair—a shade darker than Alexandria’s—was braided and hung over her left shoulder as frays of hair came out of the style. Her pale face contrasted greatly with her gown.

No candles lit the room, but a pale shaft of light escaped the drawn bedroom curtains, bringing a small measure of brightness to the otherwise gloomy chamber. She moved her gaze from the bed to the other furnishings; the armoires, two tables, two sofas, and three Persian rugs. Her sister had such lovely, expensive furniture. Although, Alexandria and Joanna had never suffered poverty as children, they weren’t used to seeing such luxuries as what was in this estate. Martin made certain his wife was happy, and that she was made to look like a queen. Too bad Joanna didn’t look like one now. In fact, she nearly resembled someone who was on her deathbed.

Alexandria frowned, and her heart clenched with sadness. Taking soft steps so as not to awaken her, she crept to the bed and stopped beside it. Carefully, she placed her hand over Joanna’s. Startled, her sister’s body jerked and her eyes flew open, her gaze landing on Alexandria. Within seconds, a tired smile touched her sister’s lips.

“Xandria, you have finally come.”

“Oh, dear,” Alexandria panicked. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Nonsense.” Joanna slowly shook her head. “I have wanted to see you.”

“Indeed? Then why was your husband keeping me away?”

“He was? Are you certain?”

“Of course, I’m certain. He specifically instructed me not to come into your bedchamber and disturb you.”

“When did he say that?” Joanna’s eyebrows creased.

“On the first day you became ill.”

Joanna chuckled lightly, but Alexandria could tell her sister struggled to do so.

“Oh, Xandria, he probably meant that you shouldn’t disturb me on that particular day. I’m getting better, I assure you. If you had only said something to him, I believe he would have allowed you to visit me.”

“Don’t be too certain about that,” Alexandria grumbled. Although her sister had only been married a little over six months, Alexandria knew her brother-in-law’s mood swings and how uncommunicative he was.

Joanna lifted her hand, placed it over Alexandria’s, and gently squeezed. “You need not be shy with him, my dear. He’s your brother-in-law, not a stranger off the street.” She took a ragged breath and cleared her throat. “I realize you are reluctant to talk to men, but Martin is different. Truly, I wish you would think of him as family.”

Alexandria would rather not. Besides, if she had to think of him as family, why didn’t he think of her the same way? Not once did he try to go out of his way to talk to her or get to know her. “I shall try,” she answered in a soft voice.

“Oh, Xandria, please don’t fret. If only you would talk to men the way the characters in your stories do, then you wouldn’t be considered a wallflower. For once, you need to put yourself in your character’s role and talk to a man.” Her grin lifted one side of her mouth higher than the other. “I think you would be surprised how easy it is.”

Alexandria shrugged. “Perhaps that is the reason I enjoy writing so much. It’s because I can be a different person in my stories.”

“Just pretend you are one of your heroines. I’m certain that you would be able to relate better that way.”

“Yes, perhaps.” Alexandria took a deep breath and slowly released it. “So tell me, are you truly feeling better? You’re not just saying that to calm my nerves?”

Joanna nodded. “I’m gradually feeling better. The physician assures me I shall be out of bed by next week.”

“I hope so. I do miss our talks.”

Joanna’s gaze skimmed over Alexandria’s attire and she arched an eyebrow. “Are you going riding?”

Alexandria patted her high neck collar. “Yes. I was on my way out when I saw your husband leave the room. That’s when I decided to sneak in and see you.”

“Are you by chance, having problems with your story? Usually you only ride when this happens.”

Alexandria chuckled. “You know me so well.”

“Indeed, I do.” Joanna’s eyelids drooped and she yawned. “Go and ride now so I can rest. Return to me tonight. I’ll be stronger then.”

Alexandria bent and kissed her sister on her forehead. Although her heart still twisted with pain seeing her sister in such a weakened condition, she was relieved to have a chance to speak with her. Yet, what was really wrong with her sister? Even Joanna didn’t mention why she was so ill.

The moment Alexandria stepped out of the house, the sun hit her face, and she squinted from the brightness. Blinking, she adjusted her vision before proceeding to the stable. Along with Martin’s Earldom came some fine horses. Several Arabians, a few Shetlands, two Clydesdales, and her favorite—the only Highland pony—Buttercup. Never before had she seen a horse so beautiful. The beige coloring of the animal’s body blended well with the darker brown of her mane.

As she waited for the stable boy to saddle Buttercup, Alexandria glanced out across the estate. Martin was a very fortunate man, indeed, when he inherited such a grand piece of property. The circumstance in which he’d acquired the earldom wasn’t very fortunate, though, since Martin’s uncle, the Third Earl of Linden, and two cousins—Forbes and Julian Stanford—all died within a few months of each other. The earl and his oldest son, Forbes, died of what was assumed to be the plague, even though it hadn’t struck anyone else on the estate. Julian Stanford, however, died while he was at work investigating a case. She’d heard that the cannonball which killed him was highly irregular, especially for being so close to an old shipping yard.

Martin had married Joanna two months before he inherited the earldom. Thankfully, he also allowed Alexandria to live with them since her parents had died a few years ago, and she had no other place to call home.

Heavy footfalls thudded on the manicured lawn and shook her from her thoughts. She swung her attention to her brother-in-law as he marched toward her, wearing a stern expression aimed right toward her. “There you are. May I have a word, please?”

Gulping, she nodded and stepped away from the horse. Joanna had wanted Alexandria to act like one of the heroines from her stories, but right now, she felt like a coward as she forced herself to face her brother-in-law. Perhaps if he didn’t always look so menacing.

“Yes?” she asked in a squeaky voice.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and I’ve decided to find you a husband. You are well past the marrying age, and if we wait any longer, men will not find you a worthy mate. So starting tomorrow, I’ll be contacting several of my acquaintances to see who would be willing to take you off my hands.”

She inhaled sharply. Clasping her fingers together, she held them against her bosom. Take me off your hands? His rude words stung her just as much as a slap across the face would have. How dare he! Could he truly do something so despicable? Yet, he was her guardian, therefore, he could.

Panic rushed through her, tightening her chest. She could scarcely breathe without taking gasps of air. How could she write herself out of this mess?



TWO



Tears burned behind Alexandria’s eyelids and she blinked to keep them at bay. She dared not show her frustration in front of her brother-in-law. Then again, if she did, it would be the first time in history she acted like that in front of a man.

“I—I understand,” she answered in a whisper.

“Splendid.” Martin nodded. “That’s all I wanted to say. You can go about your ride now.” He flipped his hand through the air, turned and marched back toward the house.

Her eyes stung with tears as she hurried back to the horse. The stable boy assisted her on top of Buttercup. As soon as she grasped the reins, she kicked her heels into the animal’s sides and urged the horse into a run. As she guided the horse away from the house, she allowed the tears to break free and spill down her face until her vision blurred.

Her heart broke to pieces knowing there wasn’t anything her sister could do about this particular problem. If Martin wanted Alexandria out of his house and married to one of his acquaintances, it would happen. After all, he was the earl and people would bow to his command.

None of this was fair. She was shy around men, and she always would be, so naturally, she’d not be able to convince them that she would make a good wife…or a bad one. Not only that, she wouldn’t be able to get to know the man before he married her. Therefore, how would she know if she was getting a decent husband or not?

When it became too hard to see, she stopped her horse just inside a group of trees. Leaning her face against Buttercup’s mane, she sobbed harder. What could she do to stop this? What could she possibly say to Martin to make him change his mind? Why didn’t he want her living at their home? Hadn’t she done all she could to not be a burden?

His words buzzed through her head viciously, churning her stomach. I will be contacting several of my acquaintances to see who would be willing to take you off my hands. Take you off my hands… Off my hands… Her tears fell harder and faster, and she didn’t have the strength to stop them.

From deep inside the cluster of trees came the snort of another horse. Sucking in her breath, she whipped her head toward the sound. She tried searching for the horse, but her tear-filled eyes kept her blinded. She wiped away the tears and searched again. The bushes moved, and within seconds, a man rushed toward her.

She blinked, doubting what she saw. Before she had time to react, the man’s large hands reached for her waist and gripped her tightly.

“What do you think you’re doing—” she demanded, but her breath was ripped from her lungs as he yanked her off Buttercup.

Thankfully, he didn’t let her drop to the ground. Instead, arms of steel circled around her so tightly it was impossible to wiggle free. She slammed the back of her head against his chest repeatedly, hoping that would make him release her. It didn’t. Pain shot through her skull with each blow, so she stopped.

“Let me go,” she cried out, struggling harder.

“I’m sorry, Countess, but I cannot do that.”

How odd that he’d call her Countess, yet his tone of voice sounded sarcastic, so perhaps he was saying it to be mean and disrespectful.

He pulled her farther into the wooded area. She screamed louder. The sound startled Buttercup, making the horse jump and run off. Panic tightened in her throat. What in Heaven’s name was this man trying to accomplish? She screamed again, but this time her voice sounded hollow and scratchy.

His chest shook with laughter. “You can scream all you want, Countess, but nobody will hear you. You’re too far away.”

“What—what do you want with me?” she asked in a hoarse voice.

“You shall soon understand my method of madness. But for now, I need to get you out of here.

Out of here? What did he mean by that?

The man finally stopped dragging her, but it was only to wrap a large woolen horse blanket around her, covering her head and arms, and then he wound a rope around her arms to secure the covering. She tilted a few times, thinking she’d plummet to the ground, but he continued to hold her and keep her upright.

Suddenly, he lifted her in his arms and flung her over a horse. As her stomach hit the animal, her breath whooshed from her lungs, but she kept still. She took in deep breaths, trying not to panic. It wouldn’t do her any good anyway. Wiggling wouldn’t do her any good, either because she would probably fall off the horse. She also needed to save her strength for later when she attempted to escape his clutches.

And she would indeed escape. With a mind like hers, she’d think of something creative.

He mounted behind her and then lifted her effortlessly, adjusting her body to sit on his lap. The man’s thighs were muscular and felt strangely comfortable underneath her buttocks. Her cheeks burned from imagining what she must look like right now, but she pushed the embarrassment aside and concentrated on breathing normally even if terror spun through her body and caused her limbs to tremble.

A quick thought skipped through her mind that this would make a great scene in one of her stories. Realization hit her full force. Finally, she was able to experience something she could write about.

Rolling her eyes, she quickly ushered the idea from her head. Why was she thinking about her writing? Obviously, she’d been kidnapped, and she needed to focus on that. Yet how could she prepare for something she’d never experienced before? And what would happen when the man took her back to his hideout? Shy little Alexandria Templeton would never be able to handle this. One of her characters could, but not her! If the man had friends helping him, how would she be able to communicate with them? Hopefully, there was a woman in his gang of criminals because at least that would give her someone to talk to.

For a little while, she concentrated on the sounds around her and the rhythm of the horse as they rode. She had no idea in what direction they were headed, but she figured they had been riding a good hour already. Nothing sounded familiar at all. Yet all she could hear were birds chirping occasionally, and of course, the huffing coming from the horse.

Remarkably enough, his arms were strong, and as she leaned against his chest, and odd fluttering stirred in her bosom. Never had she been this close to a man, and although this was a bad situation to go through for her first physical contact, she couldn’t stop from analyzing the feelings inside of her. The cocoon of his thighs, chest, and strong arms, caused her to relax. Her eyelids grew heavy and she had to fight the urge to sleep. She needed to be alert to whatever was happening to her, and alert to how far they were riding.

After what seemed forever, the horse slowed. “Whoa, boy,” the man said, his tone deeper than it had been earlier.

Snapping to awareness, she stiffened and prepared for the worst. Hopefully, he wouldn’t hurt her. In all of the stories when the villains kidnapped the heroines…they were not after a pleasant, social visit. The villains wanted something more, and would stop at nothing to obtain it. This man who’d taken her was probably no different.

He dismounted and kept one hand on her, saving her from tipping over. He lifted her from the animal as if she was a sack of feathers. Gently, he set her on her feet, and within seconds, the ropes around her loosened and came off. Next, the blanket was removed.

She blinked against the sudden brightness. As her vision adjusted, she noticed they were at a small, rundown, cottage out in the middle of nowhere. For a moment, she wondered if anyone lived here, but then she noticed the smoke rising from the broken chimney. The fresh aroma of bread baking from within the cottage wafted around her. Her stomach grumbled. How long had it been since she’d last eaten? It couldn’t have been more than two hours, yet, the terror she’d been through since this man took her, made her weak and hungry in the worst way.

Countess, may I present your new castle for the next few days.” He swept his hand toward the cottage and bowed slightly as if he were a humble servant.

She was finally able to get a good look at him. He wore the clothes of one of the stable boys, but he was in no way a boy. Tousled hair framed his face, and he sported a day’s growth of stubble on his chin and around his mouth, making the outline a charcoal color against his tanned skin. As she’d surmised from being held by him, he was all muscle, from his strong arms to his strong legs.

When she caught herself gawking, she blushed profoundly and turned away. For certain, her flushed cheeks would show him her further embarrassment. Good Heavens! This man—her kidnapper, no less—was so very handsome. Devilishly so! But she’d never seen him before in her life. Although, he resembled the men in her stories.

“You’re probably wondering who I am,” he said.

She sneaked a peak at him from over her shoulder. Her cheeks continued to burn as she nodded.

“For now, you may call me gray.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Gray—as in the color?”

He rolled his eyes. “No, Grey—as in the man’s name.”

Embarrassment washed over her again. She hated feeling stupid, and he made her feel that way now. “Fine,” she mumbled.

He grasped her upper arm and led her to the front door, opened it, and shoved her inside. She stumbled, but thankfully, didn’t fall. That, too, would have been humiliating.

He followed her in and closed the door behind him.

The furnishings in this front room were few, and extremely worn. There was only one couch that had once been red and gold, she was certain, but it was frayed around the edges, and sections of the faded cushion were so badly worn the stuffing was coming out. There was another cushioned chair against the other wall. She had no idea what color it used to be, but it had turned brown over the years. Spots of yellow were littered over it and she wasn’t certain if those splotches were supposed to be there or not. Two regular wooden chairs sat near the fireplace, but they looked so rickety, she didn’t dare sit on either of them.

So many questions ran through her head, and yet she couldn’t ask. It wasn’t her nature to question authority…or question a man about anything, really. Unfortunately, the man named Grey wasn’t supplying her with answers, and curiosity would drive her insane.

Her sister’s words echoed through Alexandria’s head. For once, you need to put yourself in your character’s role and talk to a man. I think you’d be surprised how easy it is.

Alexandria’s heartbeat quickened and moisture formed on her palms. Could she really do that? Could she indeed talk to a strange man like her characters did and have the self-confidence she needed?

She switched her attention to Grey. He’d moved to the fireplace and using a poker, broke the burning logs. He was powerfully handsome, indeed. She could never talk to a man who looked so incredibly attractive. If she were to talk to him, she wouldn’t be able to look directly at him. If she met his stare, she’d become tongue-tied for sure.

There was no other way out of this dilemma, though. She must become one of her characters. The sooner the better.



* * * *



Inwardly seething, Julian Grey Stanford studied the Countess of Linden. He’d actually expected more from this woman; more screaming, kicking, and biting. But once he had placed her on his horse, she’d ceased her resistance. Their ride to the cottage was really less than an hour, but he wanted to make the countess think they’d traveled farther, so he kept riding around the vicinity.

It hadn’t taken long for her body to relax against him, and that was when havoc had invaded all of his senses. Not only did she smell like fresh cut spring flowers, but her soft body pressed against him so intimately, that his lonely mind couldn’t stop from imagining what could possibly happen between them. Naturally, she’d be vulnerable, and they’d be alone inside the cottage. It hadn’t mattered that she was married because all he could think about was how he hadn’t held a woman like this for so very long. Once his mind reached that point, Julian knew it was time to stop their little ride and break the physical contact between them. In fact, soon he would tie her to a chair, so that he could head out back and take a dip in the cold stream not far from the cottage. He needed to do something to cool his ardor…and fast.

As he’d untied her bound wrists, he’d expected her to spout words no respectable lady would say, or at least threaten him in some way—not that any of it would matter—but again, the woman surprised him by doing none of that.

Her beauty also surprised him. His cousin, Martin, would have certainly found a lovely lady to claim as his wife, but Julian never figured her to be this beautiful.

The Countess of Linden wore a light purple riding habit, and the outfit hugged her slender form quite nicely. Her bonnet had fallen off during the skirmish. Locks of blonde hair escaped a once well-coiffed bun to give her a disheveled appearance.

A few moments earlier when she had gazed upon him as if he was nothing but sweetmeats she wanted to devour, he had to bite the side of his cheek to keep from grinning. Well, perhaps devour wasn’t quite the word since she’d looked stunned by her indecent thoughts only seconds afterwards.

Her gaze studied the floor for several awkward moments before she took deep breaths and then cleared her throat. “Do…do you intend to starve me, Sir?”

He arched an eyebrow. What an odd thing to ask. “No.”

“Then…would it be permissible to…eat something now?” Her voice squeaked.

He couldn’t understand why she’d be hungry when he’d spied her no more than three hours ago at the manor sitting near the dining room window eating her breakfast. “You are hungry?”

Her head snapped up and she met his stare with wide eyes. “But of course! Would I have asked otherwise?”

The sudden snip in her tone startled him at first, only because she’d been so shy thus far. Yet, she was now beginning to resemble the countess he’d been told about.

Julian folded his arms over his chest and lifted his chin. “Well, my lady, if you will come with me into the kitchen—”

“Why can I not stay here by the fire?”

“I don’t trust that you won’t try and escape. Although, I’m certain you won’t get very far before I catch you, I’m really not in the mood to run after you.”

She huffed and threw him a scowl. “I assure you, I’m very hungry.”

“Then please,” he swept his arm toward the kitchen, “let’s adjourn into the other room so I can prepare you something to eat.”

Her mouth tightened and she stomped past him into the room. Grinning, he followed. Soon she’d learn who was in command here, and it wasn’t the high and mighty Countess of Linden, that was for certain.

As she walked into the kitchen, she came to an abrupt stop. He sidestepped her quickly to keep from bumping into her. The hurried movement brought a twinge of pain to his left leg. He gritted his teeth and tried to rub the ache from his knee. His injury was still rather new, and he needed to remember to give the wound time to heal. Unfortunately, all he’d planned to accomplish now wouldn’t allow him much time to be patient. He’d just have to endure the agony from time to time, and get used to it.

He studied her disgusted expression as her gaze swept around the room, and he tried to see this room as she was seeing it for the first time. So perhaps he should have cleaned a little better, but considering this cottage was on his friend’s estate and it hadn’t been used for several years, it was no wonder the place was filthy.

Dented, old pans hung on the walls, the copper had faded many years ago. The shelves on the walls were in need of dusting—as were the canisters and bowls filling them—and the floor was in dire need of being swept and mopped, as well. At least the two fireplaces worked properly. One held a large black kettle of boiling water, and the other held the baking bread that smelled as if it might be done. The table near the only window in the room was as rickety as the three chairs surrounding it.

Julian moved to the fireplace that cooked the baking bread he’d prepared earlier this morning. He used a cloth to slowly lift the lid. The pleasant aroma filled the air, and he closed his eyes, breathing in the scent deeply. It smelled just like the way he’d made it while living by himself near London when he was a police inspector. The other officers had praised him countless times on how excellent he cooked.

He glanced around the small space and toward the shelves, searching for some plates, but so far he was yet to see any.

“Is there something I can do to help?” she asked in a small voice.

He peeked at her and crinkled his forehead. A countess offering to help in a kitchen? How odd. “If you can find some plates for our bread and some cups for our tea, that would be most helpful.”

She moved past him, and the skirt of her riding habit brushed across his legs. Her sweet fragrance filled his head. Now he recognized the flower. Lilacs. As much as he enjoyed a woman’s scent, he tried really hard not to enjoy this particular woman’s smell. He didn’t want to like her. She was the enemy’s wife, and he only wanted one thing from her.

A confession.

Julian was convinced Martin was the reason the original Earl of Linden, Julian’s father, and his brother, Forbes, had died so quickly. The physicians had written to Julian and explained his family’s sickness was a form of the plague. What confused Julian was wondering why this illness only took Father and Forbes’ lives, and yet it hadn’t made anyone else in the estate sick.

Very curious. As was the suspicious accident that nearly took his life shortly after hearing of his father and brother’s deaths. He was still surprised that he hadn’t died in the cannon blast. However, he would probably always walk with a limp because of his injury. The other two police inspectors hadn’t been as fortunate, and they both lost their lives.

He rubbed his left leg, grateful that the surgeon hadn’t removed his limb. By the grace of God, his leg was saved as well as his own life. Of course, the flesh wounds were still very sore, and he had to take care not to get an infection. By this point, Julian realized none of these mishaps were accidental, especially since they only targeted the Stanford men.

“I can’t find any dishes,” the countess said in an irritable voice. “It’s hard to believe you would plan a kidnapping and not have the supplies to take care of your prisoner.”

Julian studied the woman, not quite sure how to take her. Although her words were what he’d expected from such a high-and-mighty woman, her tone of voice still lacked confidence, as did her gaze. Her eyes were downcast and she rarely looked at him.

“Forgive me, Your Majesty, but this cottage was supposed to have been stocked. I assure you, I’ll take care of the matter after I feed you.”

He turned back to the bread. Taking the pot from the fire, he slowly carried it to the cooking table, and placed it on top. He used a knife to cut out chunks of the bread, careful not to burn his fingers.

He couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to his friend, Roland Moore, Marquis of Trenton. The marquis was supposed to have a servant stock the small cottage in preparation for the kidnapping. Where was his friend now? If it wasn’t for Roland, Julian wouldn’t have suspected Martin of killing his family—at least for a few months. The marquis had watched Martin since he took over his title, and Roland had become suspicious of the newly awarded earl’s actions. Julian didn’t know what he’d do without his friend and the assistance he had offered in catching the murderous cousin.

“We’ll make do without dishes,” he grumbled, keeping his eyes on the bread. “Sit at the table and I’ll serve you.”

Silence filled the room. He couldn’t even hear the countess breathing. Panic gripped his chest and he swung around, looking for her. She was gone!

How long had it been since he’d last spoken to her? Blast it all! He couldn’t remember. But he shouldn’t fear because she wouldn’t have gotten very far.

He dropped the knife onto the table before rushing out of the room. The pain in his leg returned, and he gritted his teeth. Yet, he couldn’t worry about his injury now.

Keeping his ears in check, he listened for any sounds that would tell him where she’d gone. The front door was open. That was an indicator of where she was headed.

He quickly limped outside, stopped, and scoped his surroundings. His knee throbbed and he rubbed it, praying the pain would disappear soon. Where’s my horse? There was no way the countess would have had time to mount by herself in just a few minutes, and if she had, he would still be able to see her.

He whistled for his horse. By now, the animal knew when to come to his master. Immediately, he heard the animal’s neigh and he swung his head toward the sound. The horse was grazing in a nearby pasture…without the countess. Would she have been so foolish to try and escape on foot?

The fine animal raised his head and trotted toward Julian, stopping close by. He stroked the horse’s mane as he glanced around the area. Where could she have gone?

“Countess, you may as well come out now. It’s impossible for you to get very far. If you haven’t realized, we are quite a distance in the country.”

Slowly, he walked away from the horse. He looked behind each bush that passed him. Irritation grew inside him as the minutes ticked by. She really couldn’t have gone far.

“If you insist on making me look for you,” he said in a louder voice, “my anger will only worsen, and I can assure you, that’s not something you will enjoy.”

He stopped and waited, trying to adjust his hearing. Within seconds, twigs snapped behind him and suddenly, there was a sharp point jabbing the middle of his back. He stiffened.

“I haven’t gone anywhere. Yet,” she said roughly. Her voice was almost foreign. “But I have a knife and I know how to use it. I suggest you take me back to the estate immediately.”

Inwardly, he groaned. This just could not be happening!


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