Janna MacGregor

Excerpt: How to Best a Marquess

Book 3: The Widow Rules

Chapter One

London, 1816

The Mayfair home of the Marquess of Grayson

Blythe Elizabeth Howell had enough life experience to know when a situation was hopeless and when to take
matters into her own hands.

Determined, Beth marched up the steps of the lovely Palladian manse that belonged to the Marquess of Grayson. Tonight proved that she must create her own future and define her own ideals of a perfect life. No longer would she abide by her brother’s edicts. Nor would she cower behind society’s machinations of her ruined reputation.

The only way to accomplish all of this was to convince the marquess to lend assistance and travel to Hampshire with her.

As soon as possible.

She’d laugh if it weren’t so ironic that she was turning to Grayson for help. Especially since he’d been the one to run from her all those years ago after he’d asked her to marry him.

With her brother insisting she marry again, drastic situations required drastic actions. Beth had vowed tonight that she would no longer delay. She would find the lost dowry that her late husband, Lord Meriwether Vareck, had taken with him when he’d left her after two weeks of marriage.

That dowry represented her freedom.

Her traitorous gaze ventured skyward as she studied the gray brick home that was as intimidating as its owner, Julian Raleah, the Marquess of Grayson.

He’d been the first man to ask her to marry him. She’d fancied herself quite in love with the marquess. Beth had found him honest, polite, with a hint of devilment in his eyes.

When her brother had refused the marriage, Grayson hadn’t tried to convince him. He’d simply left without saying goodbye.

She’d been devastated by his actions. Obviously, the blasted man hadn’t cared for her the way she’d cared for him.

But none of it mattered now. This was business and a chance for her to reclaim her dowry.

He was the one she’d ask for assistance since he was in the same position as she. He needed a fortune and so did Beth.

Yet the heartache still lingered. After Grayson had walked away without even fighting for her, she’d never
given any other man the same regard. It was as if she’d become an empty shell of who she once was.

But once she found whatever remained of her dowry, at least her reticule would be full.

Standing in front of the imposing black entrance doors, Beth straightened her shoulders, then knocked. Grayson helping her attain her goal was not a certain outcome. But he was the only person she could turn to.

He didn’t have a wife or a family. Nor did he have any commitments that would require him to remain in London. More importantly, they were not friends. Beth would classify their acquaintance as merely that—
confrères who had a past with each other. He would be the perfect partner in her bid to recover her lost dowry.

With a creak, one of the massive oak doors swung open.

“Good evening,” a man said. He must be the butler. In his early thirties with black hair and green eyes, he was
dressed in the Grayson livery.

“Is the marquess at home?” Beth nodded as she stepped across the threshold.

“Your name?”

“Beth Howell.”

He nodded, then smoothed his formal livery. “This way, my lady.”

“I’m a miss, not a lady,” Beth corrected him.

One black brow rose a fraction. “Come with me.” After a few steps, he stopped in the hallway. “I apologize for
my manners. Lord Grayson rarely has visitors. I should have introduced myself earlier. I’m Cillian Patrick, his
lordship’s butler.”

A hint of an Irish lilt colored his voice. But it was the twinkle in his eyes that gave Beth pause. He seemed delighted to have her here.

“Shall we?” Without waiting for her answer, he continued his path down the main hallway.

She followed. Though it was rather dark, there was enough light to see the contrast of faded wallpaper that
once had surrounded large paintings or perhaps family portraits. “Is the marquess redecorating?”

An exaggerated sigh of unerring patience escaped Cillian. “In a manner of speaking, Miss Howell.” He stopped outside an open door and waved her in. “Lord Grayson?” His earlier lilt had been replaced with a perfect formal accent. “Miss Howell to see you.”

The Marquess of Grayson glanced up from a journal, methodically replaced a quill pen in its stand, then rose
slowly from his desk.

With his great height and massive shoulders, Grayson intimidated most people. His perfectly angular cheekbones appeared sharp enough to cut a diamond. An appropriate comparison as his gray eyes glimmered in recognition. A hint of a smile pulled at his lips. His relaxed manner was in sharp contrast to his black formal wear. All the times she’d ever seen him, it was the only color he wore.

Odd. He must like to appear imposing, wearing all black except his shirt. It certainly lent him an air of formality.

“Miss Howell.” The low rumble of her name on his lips sent goose bumps across her flesh. He bowed slightly. “What are you doing here?”

“I was wondering if I might have a moment of your time?” A plate with a single meat pie sat next to his journal. “If I’ve interrupted your meal, I apologize.”

Her timing may not be perfect, but she wouldn’t leave until she said her piece.

An untied cravat dangled from his neck, revealing a glimpse of his bare chest. She forced herself to look away. It was unseemly that she noticed such a sight. Instantly, her body became overheated. The temperature in the room had risen by twenty degrees.

Hadn’t it?

Such an inconvenient thought didn’t even deserve consideration. Yet there was no denying how handsome he was. The candlelight enhanced the silver in his gray eyes, while his black hair gleamed. There was even a hint of danger about him in his state of undress.

This was simply ridiculous. Grayson was a beau from long, long ago. He was merely a man from her past.

Yet she would admit there had been a time when she’d have counted the hours until she would see him at a ton event and dance in his arms.

But not now.

He turned his back to her and faced a mirror behind his desk. Several times his reflected gaze latched with hers as if trying to divine her thoughts. He’d needn’t worry. Soon, he’d know what she wanted from him.

He quickly tied the neckcloth into a simple mathematical knot. When he turned to face her, a slight scowl
appeared. The earlier fire in his gray eyes had now transformed into smoldering embers.

“Won’t you sit down?” He lowered his voice. “Your lady’s maid is free to join us.”

“No need. She’s with my brother,” Beth said.

His eyes widened at the pronouncement. “Your brother requires your maid’s assistance?”

She cleared her throat, determined not to let him or this evening upset her even more. “No, of course not. She’s still at the house. I didn’t ask her to accompany me.”

“If anyone saw you come to an unmarried man’s house, they’ll reach to the wrong conclusion.”

“And what conclusion would that be?” She baited the bear when he pursed his lips into a thin line. For the most part, she didn’t care a whit for what he or anyone else thought.

At least, that was the attitude she exhibited to most people. The truth was her self-worth felt like a piece of metal. Every time she read about herself in the gossip rags, there was a new dent. It was exhausting being pummeled by rumors and judgments that she had no control over.

That’s why she needed to recover her dowry and get on with the rest of her life. If society thought her a woman of loose morals, that was their misjudgment and not hers.

“Thank you for your concern, but there’s no need.” She blinked, an outward appearance of calm as a storm of
nervousness raged within her. “I’ll only take a moment of your time. I have a proposal for you.” She straightened her shoulders in a show of emboldened self-confidence.

Grayson’s bergamot-orange scent followed her. She inhaled the fragrance and held her breath.

“You’re the only one I can turn to.” She closed the distance between them. “I wouldn’t ask if the situation
wasn’t dire.”

He nodded.

“Will you accompany me to Kingsclere? My former husband . . . I mean Lord Meriwether . . . left each of
his wives including me a packet of receipts. It’s a trail of where he spent his money. I believe those receipts hold the key to my dowry. I’ll make it worth your while.” The room turned deadly silent, but she refused to look away from him. She tightened her stomach in preparation. If he said no, she was determined not to collapse into a heap.

“I can’t do that.” Her gaze pierced his.

Her lungs burned from the breath she’d been holding. Slowly, she released it.

Bloody hell. Why couldn’t anything be easy?

“I’ll split whatever I find with you. Equal shares. My dowry was worth twenty thousand pounds.” In seconds,
she was in front of him. “Ten thousand pounds for each of us.” She hesitated for a moment. “I know you need the money as much as me.”

He shook his head once, then walked to the fireplace. He picked up a poker as if to tend the unlit fire, then discarded it. “I always need money,” he murmured.

It wasn’t for her ears, but she heard it anyway. That’s why he was perfect to accompany her. The truth was that a woman traveling alone was an easy target to be taken advantage of even if she minded her own business. As a viscount’s sister, she’d always had outriders and groomsmen to protect her. But this trip would not include any of those protections. Anyone who accompanied her she had to trust that they’d not tell her brother the true reason for travel. If she found her dowry, she had little doubt that St. John Howell would try to weasel her money into his own pocket.

She’d rather share her dowry with the devil before she’d give another shilling to her brother.

Even sharing with the man who had asked her to marry him, then had forsaken her the very next day, was better than sharing with her brother.

How much better?

Time would tell. She only hoped Grayson was worth the risk.

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