I've decided to let you read chapter one. Enjoy!
When Julian Stratford seeks out to steal the duchess as an act of revenge, he mistakenly steals the wrong sister—a wallflower, no less. As they work together to try and solve the mystery, they soon discover that not only are their lives in danger, but so are their hearts.
Stealing the Duchess
Copyright © 2015 by Marie Higgins
Cover Design by Sheri McGathy
North Devon, England, 1812
Heavy footsteps creaked on the warped floor in the hallway, and the terrifying sound pierced right through her. Clutching the saber in her shaky hands, she stood behind the closed door in her bedchambers. She would not 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 could sweep her mind into oblivion. But now it was too late. She feared for her own safety.
The wind outside whipped around the small cottage where she’d lived since she was a child, but tonight, the sound did not comfort her. Every member of her family was dead, killed by the murderous hand of the man who’d captivated her so abruptly.
For certain, she was next.
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 blew out 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. Hadn’t she learned by now not to write before she was ready? In the four years she’d been writing stories, she should have learned this lesson by now.
Then again, she knew why she hadn’t learned the lesson yet. Writing was her retreat from reality. Every day she couldn’t wait to enter her own little world and create characters the way she wanted, making them do the things she wanted them to do. It was what she enjoyed. What she loved completely.
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 the nearest window. The sky was so blue, and from the closest tree that stood so still, it was obvious there wasn’t a late-spring wind in the air today, either. 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. One day someone would notice her writings and want to publish them, but until then, she would keep reaching for her dream.
She donned her riding habit with the lavender short-waist jacket, black skirt, and matching hat. 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 Duke 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, and yet Martin wouldn’t keep Alexandria informed as she wished to be, and he wouldn’t allow her to visit Joanna, either.
Martin lifted his head and his gaze locked with Alexandria’s. His glare pierced right through her as he gave her a nod 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 her sister…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 like the door to her bedroom did. Thankfully, no sound came. As she stepped into the room, she held her breath and waited for the floorboards to groan as they did in her own chambers. 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 small amount of light glimmered through the curtains on the windows, bringing in a small amount of brightness. 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 were not used to seeing such luxuries as what was in this estate. Martin made certain his wife was happy—and 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, hating to see her older sister this way. 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 this.
“Oh, Xandria, he probably meant 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 mumbled as she rolled her eyes. 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 sure that would work.”
“Yes, perhaps.” Alexandria took a deep breath and slowly released it. “So tell me, are you truly feeling better? You are not just saying that to calm my nerves?”
Joanna nodded. “I’m gradually feeling better. The doctor 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 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 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 Dukedom 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 dukedom wasn’t very fortunate, though, since Martin’s uncle, the Third Duke of Linden, and two cousins—Forbes and Julian Stratford—all died within a few months of each other. The duke 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 Stratford, however, died in battle. She’d heard that he had been promoted to a Major only three months before he was killed in the Napoleonic War.
Martin had married Joanna two months before he inherited the dukedom. Thankfully, he also allowed Alexandria to live with them since her parents had died two years hence, and she had no other place to call home.
The sound of floorboards in the stable groaning beneath heavy footsteps nearby 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 toward Martin. 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 squeaked 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 will 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.
Tears burned behind her eyelids and she blinked to keep them at bay. She dared not show her frustration in front of him. Then again, if she did, it would be the first time in history she’d act like that in front of a man.
“I—I understand,” she answered in a whisper.
“Splendid.” He nodded. “That’s all I wanted to say. You can be 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, and 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. If Martin wanted Alexandria out of his house and married to one of his acquaintances, it would happen. After all, he was the duke 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? It sounded like he didn’t want the younger sister to his wife living in his house at all.
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 direction of the sound. Through a watery vision, she tried searching for the horse, but she couldn’t see well enough. She wiped the moisture from her eyes and tried to search again. Immediately, a man came rushing 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 spat, but her breath was ripped from her lungs as he yanked her off from Buttercup.
Thankfully, he didn’t let her drop to the ground. Instead, arms of steel wound 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, but it hadn’t. Pain shot through her skull with each blow, so she stopped her blows.
“Let me go,” she cried out, struggling harder.
“I’m sorry, Duchess, but I cannot do that.”
How odd that he’d call her Duchess, yet his tone of voice sounded sarcastic, so perhaps he was saying it to be mean and disrespectful.
He pulled her into the wooded area a little more, and she screamed louder. The sound startled Buttercup, and the horse jumped and ran off. Her heart sank. 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, Duchess, but nobody will hear you. You’re too far away from the house and the stable.”
“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.
Before she knew it, 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. Neither would wiggling. She needed to save her strength for later when she attempted to escape his clutches.
And she would indeed escape.
He mounted behind her and then lifted her effortlessly, adjusting her body to sit on his lap. 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 right now 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. For once she was actually experiencing something she could write about.
Rolling her eyes, she quickly ushered the idea from her head. What was she thinking when it was obvious she was being kidnapped? This wasn’t something she was prepared for, and shy little Alexandria Templeton would never be able to handle this. If the man had friends back at his hideout, 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 noise from the horse.
A few times, her eye-lids grew heavy and she was tempted to sleep, but she couldn’t do that. 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 began to slow. “Whoa, boy,” the man said, his tone deeper than it had been earlier.
She stiffened, preparing for the worst. Hopefully, he wouldn’t hurt her.
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. 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 until her vision adjusted. 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, and detected the scent of fresh bread coming from within. 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 feel weak and hungry in the worst way.
“Duchess, 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. His dark brown hair was tousled from riding his horse too fast, and there was a day’s stubble on his face, making his upper lip and around his mouth and chin 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. 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 sure looked a lot like some of the men in her stories.
“You’re probably wondering who I am,” he said.
Her cheeks continued to burn, but 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. She hated feeling stupid, and he sure 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.
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 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 them, either.
So many questions ran through her head, and yet she couldn’t ask. It wasn’t her personality 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, she was certain.
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. Oh, 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 glanced at Grey. He’d moved to the fireplace and broke the burning logs with the poker. Indeed, he was powerfully handsome. She could never talk to a man who looked that good. If she were to talk to him, she couldn’t look directly at him. If she met his stare, she’d become tongue-tied for sure.
There was no other way, through her mess, though. She must become one of her characters. The sooner the better.