Castles Ever After Series, Book 2
After eight years of waiting for Piers Brandon, the wandering Marquess of Granville, to set a wedding date, Clio Whitmore has had enough. She’s inherited a castle, scraped together some pride, and made plans to break her engagement.
Not if Rafe Brandon can help it. A ruthless prizefighter and notorious rake, Rafe is determined that Clio will marry his brother—even if he has to plan the dratted wedding himself.
So how does a hardened fighter cure a reluctant bride’s cold feet?
“A sparkling, emotionally lush romance.” ~Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews
“With the latest sterling addition to her Castles Ever After series, [Dare] continues to charm and captivate readers with her droll sense of humor, clever plotting, and engaging characters. This flawlessly written Regency historical is guaranteed to hit the sweet spot for most romance readers.” ~Starred Review, Booklist
“Dare excels at storytelling, creating a powerful, believable romance that evokes a plethora of emotions.” ~Publishers Weekly
“A smart and spirited woman who wants control of her own life, a caring, responsible nobleman who hides his feelings behind his “Devil’s Own” reputation, and a castle full of quirky characters (a brilliant, outspoken teenager is exceptional) keep the hilarious action on track in this latest addition to Dare’s whimsical series.” ~Library Journal
Here’s the full first chapter of Say Yes to the Marquess!
“Oh, Miss Whitmore. Just look at this horrid place.”
As she alighted from the coach, Clio took in the narrow, cobbled passage between two rows of warehouses. “It looks like an alleyway, Anna.”
“It smells of blood. Lord preserve us. We’ll be murdered.”
Clio bit back a smile. Her lady’s maid was a marvel with curling tongs, but her capacity for morbid imagination was truly unmatched.
“We will not be murdered.” After a moment’s thought, she added, “At least, not today.”
Miss Clio Whitmore had been raised by good parents, with the benefits of education and close attention to propriety, and she was engaged to marry England’s most promising young diplomat. She was not the sort of foolhardy young woman to go skulking about dodgy alleyways at midnight with an unloaded pistol in her pocket, in search of London’s most infamous scoundrel.
No, that would not do.
When Clio struck out in search of London’s most infamous scoundrel, she waited until midday. She entered the dodgy alleyway with a footman, her lady’s maid, and a minimum of skulking. And she didn’t carry any weapons at all.
Really, what could be the purpose? When the man you sought was a six-foot, sixteen-stone prizefighter, an unloaded pistol wouldn’t be any help. The lethal weapons in the mix were his fists, and a girl could only hope they were on her side.
Rafe, please be on my side. Just this once.
She led the way down the dank, narrow alley, hiking her lace-edged hem and taking care that her half boots didn’t catch on the uneven pavement.
Anna skipped from one to another of the cleaner cobblestones. “How does the second son of a marquess end up here?”
“On purpose. You may depend on it. Lord Rafe spurned good society years ago. He delights in anything brutish or coarse.”
Inwardly, Clio wondered. The last time she’d seen Rafe Brandon, the man who was to be her brother-in-law, he’d been nursing grave wounds. Not only the physical aftermath of the worst—more aptly, the only—defeat of his prizefighting career, but the blow of his father’s sudden death.
He’d looked low. Very low. But not so low as this.
“Here we are.” She rapped on the door and lifted her voice. “Lord Rafe? Are you there? It’s Miss…” She bit off the name. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to announce herself in a place like this. “I need only a few minutes of your time.”
That, and his signature. She clutched the sheaf of papers in her hand.
There was no answer.
“He’s not at home,” Anna said. “Please, Miss Whitmore. We need to be on our way if we’re to reach Twill Castle by nightfall.”
“Not just yet.”
Clio leaned close to the door. She heard sounds coming from within. The screech of chair legs across a floor. The occasional hollow thud.
Oh, he was in there. And he was ignoring her.
She was painfully accustomed to being ignored. Her engagement had given her years of practice.
When Clio was seventeen, Lord Piers Brandon, the handsome, dashing heir to the Marquess of Granville, had obeyed the wishes of their families and proposed marriage. He’d gone on bended knee in the Whitmore drawing room, sliding a gold-and-ruby ring on her third finger. To Clio, it had felt like a dream.
A dream with one snag. Piers had a new but promising career in foreign diplomacy, and Clio was rather young to assume the duties of managing a household. They had all the time in the world, he pointed out. She didn’t mind a long engagement, did she?
“Of course not,” she’d said.
Looking back, perhaps she should have given a different answer. Such as, “Define ‘long.’”
Eight years—and no weddings—later, Clio was still waiting.
By now, her situation was a public joke. The scandal sheets called her “Miss Wait-More.” The gossip trailed her everywhere. Just what could be keeping his lordship from England and the altar, they all wondered? Was it ambition, distraction… devotion to his duty?
Or devotion to a foreign mistress, perhaps?
No one could say. Least of all Clio herself. Oh, she tried to laugh away the rumors and smile at the jokes, but inside…
Inside, she was hurting. And utterly alone.
Well, that all ended today. Starting this moment, she was Miss Wait-No-Longer.
The brass door handle turned in her gloved grip, and the door swung open.
“Stay here,” she told the servants.
“But Miss Whitmore, it isn’t—”
“I will be fine. Yes, his reputation is scandalous, but we were friends in our childhood. I spent summers at his family home, and I’m engaged to marry his brother.”
“Even so, Miss Whitmore… We should have a signal.”
“A word to shout if you’re in distress. Like ‘Tangiers,’ or… or perhaps ‘muscadine.’”
Clio gave her an amused look. “Is something wrong with the word ‘help?’”
“I… Well, I suppose not.”
“Very well.” She smiled, unable to bear Anna’s look of disappointment. “Muscadine it is.”
She passed through the door, walked down a dim corridor, and emerged into a soaring, empty space. What she found made her blood turn cold.
She blinked and forced herself to look again. Perhaps it wasn’t him.
But there was no mistaking his profile. That rugged slope of a nose healed from multiple breaks. Add in the thick, dark hair, the strong jaw, the impressive breadth of his shoulders… That was Lord Rafe Brandon himself, perched on a crossbeam some dozen feet above the bricked floor. He had a rope in his hands, and he was knotting it securely to the beam. At the end of the rope was a loop.
Apparently, his spirits hadn’t fallen as low as she’d feared.
They’d sunk lower.
And she’d arrived not a moment too soon.
Her heartbeat went into a panicked stutter, whomp-whomp-whomp-ing in her chest. “My lord, don’t. Don’t do this.”
He glanced up. “Miss Whitmore?”
“Yes. Yes, it’s me.” She advanced in small steps, lifting an open palm in a gesture of peace. “It’s Miss Whitmore. It’s Clio. I know we’ve had our differences. I’m not sure if we have anything but differences. But I’m here for you. And I beg of you, please reconsider.”
“Reconsider.” He gave her a hard look. “You mean to stop me from…”
“Yes. Don’t do something you’ll regret. You have so much to live for.”
He paused. “I’ve no wife, no children. Both my parents are dead. My brother and I haven’t been on speaking terms for nearly a decade.”
“But you have friends, surely. And many fine qualities.”
“What would those be?”
Drat. Clio should have known that was coming. She mentally ran through everything she knew of his life in recent years. Most of it came from the newspapers, and nearly all of it was horrid. Rafe Brandon had earned a reputation for being ruthless in a boxing match and shameless everywhere else. His endurance in the bedroom was almost as legendary as his quickness in the ring. They called him the Devil’s Own.
“Strength,” Clio offered. “That’s a fine quality.”
He cinched a knot tight. “Oxen are strong. Doesn’t save them from slaughter when they can’t pull anymore.”
“Don’t speak that way. Perhaps you’re no longer the champion, but that doesn’t mean you’re worthless.” Her mind groped for something, anything else. “I recall that you gave some of your winnings to a war widows’ fund. Isn’t that true?”
“Well, then. There’s that. Charity is the best of virtues.”
He finished tying off his knot and pulled on it to test the strength. “It’s no use. A stray good deed or two could never balance my sins. What of all those women I’ve seduced?”
“I…” Oh, heavens. How did one speak of such things aloud? “I…I’m sure a few of them enjoyed it.”
At that, he laughed. It was a dry, low chuckle—but a laugh, nonetheless.
Laughter was a good sign, wasn’t it? Laughing men didn’t hang themselves. It shouldn’t bother Clio that he was laughing at her.
“I assure you, Miss Whitmore. They all enjoyed it.”
He let the length of rope dangle from the beam, then made his way down it, hand over hand, until he dropped directly before her. He was barefoot, dressed in gray trousers and an open-necked linen shirt. His green eyes dared her to break with propriety in a dozen unthinkable ways.
And that smug quirk of his lips?
It said he already knew she wouldn’t.
“Breathe,” he told her. “You haven’t walked in on a tragedy.”
She took his suggestion. Air flooded her lungs, and relief filled her everywhere else. “But what was I to think? You up there on the beam, the rope, the noose…” She gestured at the evidence. “What else could you be doing?”
Wordlessly, he walked to the edge of the room. There, he retrieved a straw-stuffed canvas bag with a hook affixed at the top. He walked back and hung the sack from the loop of rope, sliding the noose to make it tight.
“It’s called training.” He gave the bag a single, demonstrative punch. “See?”
She saw. And now she felt unbearably foolish. In their youth Rafe had always teased her, but of all the mischief he’d pulled over the years…
“Sorry to ruin your fun,” he said.
“It’s a popular enough female pastime. Trying to save me from myself.” He threw her a knowing look as he sauntered past.
Clio blushed in response. But that was the wrong word. A “blush” was a whisper of color, and right now her cheeks must be screaming. Just ridiculously pink, like a flamingo or something.
Wretched, teasing man.
Once, when Clio had been a small girl, she’d seen a fistfight in the local village. A man buying hazels challenged a merchant over the honesty of his scales. The two argued, shouted… a scuffle broke out. She’d never forgotten the way the atmosphere changed in an instant. Everyone in the vicinity felt it. The air prickled with danger.
She’d never witnessed another bout of fisticuffs. But she felt the same prickle in the air whenever Rafe Brandon was near. He seemed to carry things with him, the way other men carried portmanteaux or walking sticks. Things like intensity. Brute power, held in check—but only just. That sense of danger mingled with anticipation. And the promise that at any moment, the rules that governed society could be rendered meaningless.
Were his rakish exploits any mystery? Really, the corsets must unlace themselves.
“I thought you’d given up prizefighting,” she said.
“Everyone thinks I’ve given up prizefighting. Which is what will make my return to the sport so very exciting. And lucrative.”
That followed a strange sort of logic, she supposed.
“Now explain yourself.” He crossed his arms. His large, massive, all-the-words-for-big arms. “What the devil are you doing? You should know better than to come to a neighborhood like this alone.”
“I do know better, and I didn’t come alone. I have two servants waiting outside.” On a stupid impulse, she added, “And we have a signal.”
One dark eyebrow lifted. “A signal.”
“Yes. A signal.” She forged on before he could inquire further. “I would not have needed to come here at all if you’d left some other way of reaching you. I tried calling at the Harrington.”
“I no longer have rooms at the Harrington.”
“So they informed me. They gave this as your forwarding address.” She followed him toward what seemed to be the living quarters. “Do you truly live here?”
“When I’m training, I do. No distractions.”
Clio looked around. She hadn’t been in many bachelor apartments, but she’d always imagined them to be cluttered and smelling of unwashed things—dishes, linens, bodies.
Lord Rafe’s warehouse didn’t smell of anything unpleasant. Just sawdust, coffee, and the faint aroma of…oil of wintergreen, perhaps? But the place was spartan in its furnishings. In one corner, she glimpsed a simple cot, a cupboard and a few shelves, and a small table with two stools.
He removed two tumblers from the cupboard and placed them on the table. Into one, he poured a few inches of sherry. Into the other, he emptied the remaining contents of a coffeepot, added a touch of pungent syrup from a mysterious brown bottle, then into it all he cracked three raw eggs.
She watched with queasy fascination as he stirred the slimy mess with a fork. “Surely you’re not going to—”
“Drink that?” He lifted the tumbler, drained it one long swallow, and pounded the glass to the tabletop. “Three times a day.”
He pushed the sherry toward her. “That’s yours. You look like you could use it.”
Clio stared at the glass as waves of nausea pitched her stomach to and fro. “Thank you.”
“It’s the best I can do. As you can see, I’m not set up to receive social calls.”
“I won’t take much of your time, I promise. I only stopped by to—”
“Extend a wedding invitation. I’ll send my regrets.”
“What? No. I mean… I gather you’ve heard that Lord Granville is finally returning from Vienna.”
“I heard. And Piers has given you permission to plan the most lavish wedding imaginable. I signed off on the accounts myself.”
“Yes, well. About those signatures…” Clio twisted the papers rolled in her hand.
He walked away from the table. “This will have to be quick. I can’t be wasting time on chatter.”
He stopped beneath a bar hanging parallel to the floor some three feet over his head. In a burst of quickness, he jumped to grab it. Then he began to lift himself by means of flexing his arms.
Again, and then again.
“Go on,” he said, clearing the bar with his chin for the fourth time. “I can talk while I do this.”
Perhaps he could, but Clio was finding it difficult. She wasn’t accustomed to carrying on a conversation with a barely dressed man engaged in such… muscular exercise. Awareness hummed in her veins.
She picked up the tumbler of sherry and took a cautious swallow.
“I wouldn’t expect you to have heard, but my Uncle Humphrey died a few months ago.” She waved off the condolences before he could offer them. “It wasn’t a shock. He was very old. But the dear old thing left me a bequest in his will. A castle.”
“A castle?” He grunted as he cleared the bar again. Then he paused there, muscles tensed with effort. “Some crumbling pile on the moors with a mountain of unpaid taxes, I suspect.”
“No, actually. It’s situated in Kent and quite lovely. It was one of his personal properties. He was the Earl of Lynforth, if you recall.”
Good heavens, she was babbling. Pull yourself together, Clio.
“Ideal for a wedding, then.” His voice tightened with exertion.
“I suppose it could be. For someone. But I’m on my way there today, and I stopped by to—”
“Inform me.” Lift.
“Yes, and also—”
“To ask for money.” Lift. “I just told you, you’re free to spend as much on the wedding as you wish. Send the bills to my brother’s men of business.”
Clio squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them. “Lord Rafe, please. Would you kindly stop—”
“Finishing your sentences?”
She suppressed a little growl.
He paused midlift. “Don’t try to tell me I got that one wrong.”
She couldn’t tell him that. Not honestly. That was the most galling part.
He went on, “As I said … I’m training.” Each phrase was punctuated by another lift. “It’s what prizefighters do. We concentrate.” Lift. “Anticipate.” Lift. “React. If it bothers you, try being less predictable.”
“I’m calling it off,” she blurted out. “The wedding, the engagement. Everything. I’m calling it all off.”
He dropped to the floor.
The air prickled around them.
And his dark expression told Clio, in no uncertain terms, he hadn’t predicted that.
Rafe stared at her.
This was not how his month was supposed to be going. He’d holed himself away in this storehouse to train for his comeback. When he met Jack Dubose for the second time, it would be the biggest bout of his life and the largest purse ever offered in English history. To prepare, he needed intensive physical conditioning, undisturbed sleep, nourishing food…
And absolutely no distractions.
Then who should walk through the door? None other than Miss Clio Whitmore, his most persistent and personal distraction. Of course.
He’d always been at odds with her, ever since they were children. He’d been an impulsive, rough-mannered devil. And she’d been the picture of an English rose, with her fair hair, blue eyes, and delicate complexion. Genteel and hospitable and well-mannered, too.
Just so irritatingly sweet.
In sum, Clio Whitmore was the embodiment of polite society. Everything Rafe had spurned at the age of twenty-one. Everything he’d vowed to dismantle.
And that had to be what made it so damned tempting to dismantle her.
Whenever Clio was near, he couldn’t resist shocking her proper sensibilities with a flex or two of brute strength. He liked to devil her until he turned her cheeks some new, exotic shade of pink. And he’d wondered, many times, how she’d look with that slick knot of golden hair undone, tangled from lovemaking and damp with sweat.
She was his brother’s intended. It was wrong to think of her that way. But outside a boxing ring, Rafe had never done much of anything right.
He pulled his gaze from the frothy white fichu edging her neckline. “I think I misheard you.”
“Oh, I’m certain you heard me correctly. I have the papers right here.” She unrolled a sheaf of papers in her gloved hand. “My solicitors drew them up. Would you like me to summarize?”
Annoyed, he reached for the papers. “I can read.”
Like all the legal documents shoved in front of him since the old marquess’s death, the papers were written in hen scratches so tight and close as to be indecipherable. Just glancing at it gave him a headache.
But that one glance told him enough.
This was serious.
“These aren’t valid,” he said. “Piers would have to sign them first.”
“Yes, well. There is someone with the power to sign for Piers in his absence.” Her blue gaze met his.
Rafe couldn’t believe this. “That’s why you’re here. You want me to sign this?”
“Not going to happen.” He thrust the papers back at her, then walked over to the punching bag and gave it a booming right cross. “Piers is on his way home from Vienna. And you are meant to be planning the wedding as we speak.”
“Exactly why I hoped to have these papers signed before he arrives. It seems the best way. I’d hate to make an unpleasant scene, and…”
“And unpleasant scenes are my specialty.”
She shrugged. “Quite.”
Rafe lowered his head and threw a barrage of jabs at the punching bag. This time, he wasn’t putting on a display. His brain worked better when his body was in motion. Fighting brought him to his sharpest focus, and he needed that now.
Why the hell would Clio want to break this engagement? She was a society debutante, raised for advantageous marriage the way thoroughbred horses were bred to race. A lavish wedding to a wealthy, handsome marquess should be her fondest dream.
“You won’t find a better prospect,” he said.
“And you must want to get married. What else could you hope to do with your life?”
She laughed into her sherry. “What else, indeed. It’s not as though we ladies are allowed to have interests or pursuits of our own.”
“Exactly. Unless…” He held his punch. “Unless there’s someone else.”
She was quiet for a moment. “There’s no one else.”
“Then it’s the anticipation getting to you. Just a case of cold feet.”
“It’s not that I’m a nervous bride, either. I simply don’t wish to marry a man who doesn’t want to marry me.”
“Why would you think he doesn’t want to marry you?” He threw a right hook at the bag, then followed it with a left.
“Because I’ve looked at the calendar. Eight years have passed since he proposed. If you truly wanted a woman, would you wait that long to make her your own?”
He let his fists fall to his sides and turned to her, breathing hard. His lungs filled with the scent of violets. Damn, she even smelled sweet.
“No,” he said. “I wouldn’t.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“But,” he continued, “I’m an impulsive bastard. This is about Piers. He’s the loyal, honorable son.”
Her eyebrow made the slightest quirk. “If you believe the scandal sheets, he has a mistress and four children tucked away somewhere.”
“I don’t read the scandal sheets.”
“Perhaps you should. You’re often in them.”
He didn’t doubt it. Rafe knew the vile things that were said about him, and he took every opportunity to encourage the gossip. Reputation didn’t win fights, but it drew crowds and lined pockets.
“It’s not as though Piers hasn’t had reasons for delaying. He’s an important man.” Rafe fought to keep a straight face. Listen to him, singing his brother’s praises. That didn’t happen often. It didn’t happen ever. “There was that post in India. Then the one in Antigua. He came home between assignments, but then there was some delay.”
She looked down. “I was ill.”
“Right. Then there was a war to settle, and another after that. Now that all these treaties in Vienna are hammered out, he’s on his way home.”
“It’s not that I begrudge his sense of duty,” she said. “Nor how essential he’s made himself to the Crown. But it’s become abundantly clear that I’m not essential to him.”
Rafe rubbed his face with both hands and growled into them.
“My solicitors told me I’d have a case for a breach of promise suit. But I didn’t want to embarrass him. Now that I have Twill Castle, I don’t require the security of marriage. A quiet dissolution is best for all concerned.”
“No. It’s not best. Not at all.”
Not best for Piers, not best for Clio.
And definitely not best for Rafe.
He’d put his prizefighting career on hold after his father’s death. He didn’t have a choice. With Piers out of the country, Rafe found himself, however unwillingly, at the helm of the Granville fortune.
He belonged in a boxing ring, not an office. He knew it, and so did the solicitors and stewards, who barely managed to veil their disdain. They came armed with folios and ledgers and a dozen matters for his attention, and before Rafe sorted his way through one issue, they were on to the next. Each meeting left him restless and simmering with resentment—as though he’d been sent down from Eton all over again.
Rafe could all but hear his father twisting in his grave, spitting worms and grinding out those same, familiar words.
No son of mine will remain an uneducated brute. No son of mine will disgrace this family’s legacy.
Rafe had always been a disappointment. He’d never been the son his father wanted. But he’d made his own life, earned his own title—not “lord,” but “champion.” As soon as Piers to returned to England and married, he would be free to fight again and get that title back.
If Clio called off the wedding, however…?
His globe-wandering brother might turn around and disappear for another eight years.
“Piers has likely been hoping for this outcome all along,” Clio said. “He wanted out of the engagement, but his honor wouldn’t permit him to ask. When he learns the dissolution is already done, I expect he’ll be relieved.”
“Piers will not be relieved. And I’m not going to let you do this.”
“I don’t wish to quarrel.” She rolled the papers and tapped the cylinder on its edge. “You have my apologies for the intrusion. I’ll take my leave now. And I’ll bring these papers with me to Kent. If you change your mind about signing them, I’ll be at Twill Castle. It’s near the village of Charingwood.”
“I won’t sign. And mark my words, you won’t ask him to sign it, either. When he comes back, you’ll know at once that the gossip was baseless. You’ll be reminded of the reasons why you consented to be his bride in the first place. And you will marry him.”
“No. I won’t.”
“Think of it. You’ll be a marchioness.”
“No,” she said. “I truly won’t.”
Her quiet, solemn tone unnerved him more than he cared to admit. Hell, his palms were even growing damp. It was as though he could feel his career—everything he’d worked for, and the only thing that made his life worth a damn—slipping from his grasp.
She moved to leave, and he lunged to catch her by the arm. “Clio, wait.”
“He doesn’t want me.” Her voice broke. “Can’t you understand that? Everyone knows. It took me too many years to see the truth. But I’m done waiting. He doesn’t want me, and I no longer want him. I have to protect my heart.”
Damn it all. So that’s what this was. He should have guessed. The reason for her sudden reluctance was as plain as the lion on the Granville crest.
Rafe was the rebel of the family, but Piers had been chipped straight from their father’s stone. Upright, proud, unyielding. And most of all, unwilling to show emotion.
Rafe didn’t have a damned thing in common with a society debutante, but he knew that it hurt to feel unwanted by the Marquess of Granville. He’d spent his own youth starved for the slightest sign of his father’s affection or approval—and he’d loathed himself when those signs never came.
“Piers wants you.” He silenced her objection, rubbing his thumb up and down her arm. God, she was soft there. “He will. Make those wedding plans, Clio. Because when he sees you again for the first time, it’s going to come as a blow to the ribs, that wanting. He’s going to want to see you in that grand, lacy gown, with little blossoms strewn in your hair. He’s going to want to watch you walk down that aisle, feeling his chest swell closer to bursting from pride with every step you take. And most of all, he’ll want to stand before God, your friends and family, and all of London society—just to tell them you’re his. His, and no one else’s.”
She didn’t respond.
“You’re going to want that, too.” He released her arm with a squeeze, then chucked her under the chin. “Mark my words. I’ll see you married to my brother within the month—even if I have to plan the damn wedding myself.”
“What?” She shook herself. “You, plan the wedding?”
A little smile played about her lips as she looked to the exposed ceiling rafters, the barren brick walls, the rough-hewn furniture…then back to him. The most crude, inelegant thing in the room.
“Now I’m almost sorry it’s not going to happen,” she said, pulling away. “Because that would be amusing.”