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November 30, 2009
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Excerpt from Marrying the Marquis by Patricia Grasso
The duchess was giving her grief.
Blaze Flambeau crossed the bedchamber to the window overlooking the gardens. Her lips quirked in grudging admiration for her stepmother, a woman determined to reach her goals, not unlike herself.
Her Grace refused to accept that she planned never to marry, and discussing the situation with her father had not helped. He had shrugged at her complaint and explained that his dearest Roxie wanted everyone to marry and live as happily as she. Of course, as the duke's second wife, his dearest Roxie had not been abandoned at home while her husband sired seven daughters on Gabrielle Flambeau, his long-time lover.
Blaze knew she would not feel differently once she had met--as her father insisted--the right man, her true love. What had love given her mother except heartache and seven daughters?
Scanning the world outside her window, Blaze spotted the gardeners performing their daily chores. She would need to wait before slipping outside to complete her task.
Blaze leaned against the windowsill, willing the gardeners to hurry, when the first stirrings of dread seeped into her consciousness. Her stepmother had invited several bachelors to dine with the family that evening, and nobody refused an invitation from the Duke and Duchess of Inverary.
Snoring from the bed intruded on her thoughts, drawing her attention. Puddles was lying in the middle of her bed, all four limbs outstretched. The brindled mastiff looked like he was sleeping off a seven-day drunk.
Blaze wandered across the room to the cheval mirror. Studying her reflection, she wondered how she appeared to gentlemen.
Gawd, she hated her freckles, and her red hair accentuated the sprinkling of dots across the bridge of her nose. Blushing diminished the tiny flaws, but she could not blush every minute of every day for the remainder of her life.
If only she had inherited the Flambeau black hair and flawless complexion. A Scots ancestor--Aunt Bedelia Campbell, her father said--had sent the riotous red hair and freckles through time and space to land on her, making her the cuckoo in the nest. The classic Flambeau beauty had even touched her own twin, who looked nothing like her.
What sane gentleman would offer for a redhaired, freckled- faced monkey? Blaze asked herself.
A blind man, came her honest answer, or a man desiring a close connection with the influential Duke of Inverary.
She supposed her freckles did not matter, though. Attracting a husband did not appear on her list of priorities. Winning the thoroughbred races that season would give her the money to reach her goal. Or, at least, set her plan into motion.
And yet . . . A smile touched her lips when she recalled the handsome gentleman who had requested a dance at her sister's wedding the previous year. Waltzing with the Marquis of Somewhere-Or-Other had made her feel almost pretty. At least for the dance's duration.
The fond memory disappeared as quickly as it had come. The marquis had proceeded to dance with every female guest, no matter her age or appearance. Blaze could not fault the marquis for failing to request a second dance. She had stepped on his feet several times.
Gazing out the window again, Blaze noted the gardeners had finished their chores and gone. She grabbed the bulging sack stowed beside her bed.
"Outside, Puddles," she called, heading for the door.
Awakened by the word out, the black-masked mastiff bolted off the bed. He trotted beside her down the corridor.
Blaze stopped at the next door and peered into her twin's bedchamber. Working on ledgers, her sister sat at a table near the window.
"I'm too busy at the moment," her sister said without looking up. "Ask someone else."
Blaze closed the door. Her twin was always busy when she needed her assistance.
Continuing down the hall, Blaze paused at her sister Serena's bedchamber and pressed her ear to the door. The sound of muted voices in conversation reached her. She opened the door. Apparently, Serena was posing for Sophia, her artistic identical twin.
Blaze cleared her throat. "Sisters?"
Both twins looked at her, their gazes dropping to the sack in her hands. "No," they said simultaneously, and then giggled.
Blaze closed the door and walked the length of the corridor to her youngest sibling's door. She raised her fist to knock but heard her sister's voice.
"Come inside, Blaze."
That made her smile. Raven always knew things in advance. She wondered if her sister could tell her how successful the thoroughbred racing season would prove.
Blaze stepped into her sister's chamber. "Will you--?"
"I've been waiting for you," Raven interrupted, crossing the chamber, "but I am not digging."
"I will bury the deceased."
Raven smiled at that. "What if Her Grace catches you?"
"I'll say I was simply playing an April Fool's joke on her," she answered.
"You are sneaky."
Blaze gave her a sunshine smile. "Thank you for the compliment, sister."
"Do you have a shovel?" Raven asked, following her into the hallway.
"I hid one behind the gazebo." Blaze started to walk down the corridor to the main staircase.
Raven touched her arm. "Using the servants' stairs will be more discreet."
Blaze retraced her steps in the opposite direction. "You are almost as sneaky as I am."
Raven threw her arm across her shoulders in camaraderie. "Sneakiness must run in our family."
"Did we inherit our sneakiness from the Flambeaus or the Campbells?"
Hurrying down the back stairs to the garden door, Blaze and Raven stepped into an unseasonably warm April afternoon. They walked through the formal gardens and passed the maze's clipped hedges. Ahead of them stretched an expanse of manicured lawns and then the woodland, the white gazebo standing guard between the two.
Birdsong wafted through the air, catching Blaze's attention. She looked up at the sky. High, thin clouds diluted its blue brilliance, and a hawk was gliding on a breeze while searching for its next meal.
Walking around the gazebo, Blaze grabbed the shovel and returned to where Raven sat on the structure's top step. Puddles dashed around, enjoying his freedom like a felon released from Newgate.
With her right foot on the shovel, Blaze used her weight to lift the top layer of grass and gently set it aside. She repeated this again and again until she had the width and the length of the hole she wanted to dig.
"Life seems different with Fancy and Belle married," Blaze said as she worked. "You will be gone, too, in a couple of months."
"I may need to postpone the wedding," Raven told her.
Blaze stopped digging. "Why is that?"
"I feel one of my sisters may need to use the wedding plans for herself."
"Which sister?" Blaze asked, her blue gaze narrowing.
"I don't know everything," Raven said. "Why are you setting the grass aside?"
"Once the hole is filled," she answered, "I will replace the grass, and no one will notice the grave."
"That is sneaky," Raven said. "Alex will be arriving in Newmarket this afternoon."
"Are he and the constable investigating the jockey's murder?" Blaze asked, glancing at her.