The Marquess Who Loved Me - By Sara Ramsey
Surrey, 11 February 1813
Nicholas Claiborne was not a sentimental man. And yet even he thought it would be pleasant to feel something better than anger upon seeing his ancestral estate for the first time.
“Damn her,” he muttered. “She would be hosting a party tonight.”
Did Ellie remember this date, this night, as he did? Or was her party a grating coincidence?
When Nick’s will had failed him over the last decade — more often than he cared to admit — he dreamed of seeing her again. Sometimes, his fantasy Ellie ran into his arms. Sometimes, she was so caught up in someone else that she didn’t notice him. But in every vision of his homecoming, he had forgotten an important point.
He couldn’t find his own house.
It was embarrassing, that. The pub owner in the last village, only a mile from Folkestone’s entrance gates, had assured him that he couldn’t possibly miss the estate. He might have done so more smugly had he known Nick was the long-absent owner rather than one of an endless stream of guests. But Nick hadn’t shared his real name — not in the village, not upon arrival at the East India Docks, and not at the London hotel he’d used for the past five days. If the attempts on his life in Madras had been ordered from London — or Folkestone — he wouldn’t make it easy for his assailants by announcing his return.
The date of his return was a coincidence. If he weren’t tracking a would-be murderer, he might never have returned. But on the eve of Ellie’s birthday, he couldn’t resist her. When his will finally, inevitably failed him and his compulsion for Ellie had overruled his common sense, he only had a vague sense of where to find his Surrey estate — hardly an auspicious homecoming.
Luckily, the pub owner’s directions were sound. The grand wrought iron gates stood open, more inviting than Nick had pictured them when his father had described them to Nick and his brothers. Beyond, some fifty carriages lined the drive. He heard the whinnying of horses and the stamping of hooves, muted masculine laughter and at least one protracted snore. Never mind that it was February — the drivers were accustomed to waiting hours for their employers.
Surely it was the cold that made him shiver, not the gates that waited for him. The colorful coat of arms at their peak was grey in the darkness, but the golden bits glimmered faintly in the moonlight. He had been forced to learn the arms at Eton — lions, unicorns, and roses, remnants of the ancient lines from which his father’s side descended.
His lip curled. What would his own arms be? Looms and rifles and tea leaves?
He urged his horse through the gates. If anyone in the house wanted a warning when he arrived, there was no one at the gatehouse to send it. He’d passed no carriages on the road — they likely thought all guests were accounted for and had gone off for a drink. If he were inclined, Nick could seize the gatehouse without firing a single shot.
As an invasion force, he was grossly outnumbered. But then, he held the deed to the property. Ellie’s opinions on the matter, like the rest of her, could go to the devil.
The long drive was lined with towering elms, their branches a naked winter canopy. Moonlight filtered through, casting light and shadow on the gravel as he rode. In summer the leaves would be impenetrable. His father, in one of his nostalgic moods, had said the tunnel was a bit of magic, cutting off the view of the main house until the last moment, the better to stun visitors with its grandeur.
The marquesses of Folkestone were supposed to be grand. As the latest in that accursed line, Nick didn’t care for appearances. He only cared for what helped him to achieve his ends. If grand hauteur helped, he would use every bit of it he possessed. He had hired a private room at the pub and trussed himself up in the evening suit he’d paid double to have tailored in London that morning. It wouldn’t do to show up like a travel-stained beggar, not for what he had planned. He’d left his batman in the village, too — under protest, since Trower thought Nick needed an ally at his back.
Perhaps he did. But this wasn’t a Madras back alley, and he’d found no evidence of a threat to his life in London. If