Story Excerpt: Chills

Starting this month, I’m going to publish a long excerpt from my published work here on the blog each month. With luck, you’ll be intrigued enough by this teaser to follow the links at the bottom and buy the book from your favorite ebookstore.

This month, I’m teasing you with Chills, my first full-length regency romance.

Jack Overton, Marquess of Ettington, is at his wits end dealing with his twin sister’s distress. Under her name, he’s summoned Constance Grange, his vexing former ward, to London to act as his sister’s companion for the season. Although Pixie’s debt-ridden state comes as a complete surprise, what disturbs him more is his sister’s plan to find her a wealthy husband to pay off her overwhelming debts. And—despite his availability, wealth and title—he’s shocked to be overlooked for the position of Pixie’s husband.

With a nickname like Pixie, Constance Grange should be used to disasters, but debt collectors pounding on the Marquess of Ettington’s door demanding payment is beyond mortifying. Given the precarious state of her finances and the previously unknown loss of her family estate, her choices are either incarceration in debtors’ prison or turning fortune hunter to secure a wealthy husband. Yet the man that comes to her rescue more times than she cares to think about is unavailable, betrothed, and her former guardian Jack—the cold-hearted marquess.

~ * ~

Chapter One

 Constance Grange tucked a stray, dark curl behind her ear and stared at the numbers on the page until they blurred into meaningless shapes. “This simply must be some sort of terrible mistake?”

She liked the indistinct blobs far better than the appalling amount of debt accumulated since her father’s death. No matter which way she looked at the single sheet, her small family was in a precarious position.

 “As far as I can tell, this is the bulk of your extravagances,” Mr. Medley assured her.

Constance gripped the page until it bent to fit the contours of her fingers. Medley, her family’s man-of-business, had followed her to the Marquess of Ettington’s London residence to demand payments she did not have. She had come to visitVirginia, not to deal with another parental mess. She wished he had waited to deliver his bad tidings on her return home. Could he not have waited a mere six days?

He placed a leather-strapped box onto Constance’s lap without her pardon, smiling in a way that hardly reassured. It sat awkwardly on her knees, but she opened the lid to examine the untidy stack of papers contained within.

To Mrs. Peabody of Sutton Place, one thousand pounds, Faro. The bill dated February, 20.

She prayed the stiff paper would turn to dust once exposed to light. When it didn’t, she set the bill aside and read the next.

Mrs. Brampton of Currant Place five hundred and five pounds, Whist. This one dated January, 16.

Constance laid the promissory note atop the first and delved into the stack of papers. Aside from debts to her mama’s so-called friends, there were outstanding bills to almost every tradesman in Sunderland. The tally was a huge blow.Constance could not afford the luxury of visiting with Virginia now. At the rate her mama was going, they would need to sell their home to repay even half the debt. Thank heavens it was not entailed.

When she reached the bottom, Constance stared at the fine, timber grain before methodically returning each sheet of parchment. She closed the lid tight.

The embarrassment was overwhelming. She couldn’t meet Virginia’s gaze. “You said there might be more?”

“It would be useful if your mother had kept a record. I’ve often requested prompt notice of her spending, but she has never obliged me in that regard.”

Since the beginning of this interview, there had been an undercurrent of hostility in Mr. Medley’s tone. She studied his pallid countenance. The smirk twisting his lips confirmed he enjoyed his errand.

Her stomach churned. “I thank you for bringing this matter to my direct attention. You can be sure we will provide the funds as soon as possible.”

Constance attempted to return the box to his hands. As the family’s man-of-business he would normally see to any payments, but he shook his shiny head.

“There is only one more bill for your attention.” Mr. Medley pulled a folded sheet from his inner pocket and placed it on top of the lidded box. “That one I would appreciate payment on as a matter of some urgency.”

He pulled a second paper from his other pocket and placed it on top without a word.

“What is that last bill?”

“It is not a bill for payment, Miss Grange, it is my notice. In all my years in business, I never entertained the notion that I would have two such frivolous women in need of my services. You are both horrifically excessive in your tastes and should be heartily ashamed of yourselves for squandering a fortune such as you had. And so quickly, too. Debtors prison will teach you to curb your—”

“That will be enough.” A chilling voice cracked across the room, halting Mr. Medley’s tirade.

Constance dropped her gaze to her lap. Of all the mortifying events that could occur today, this interruption ranked the highest. Why couldn’t the Marquess of Ettington still be busy elsewhere? Today wasn’t a good day for him to interrupt a private conversation when he had done his best to be unavailable for civilized discussion during the past week.

Constance didn’t dare look at her former guardian, so she opened the last of the papers before her. True to his word, Mr. Medley was breaking his connection with her family. His harsh wording brought tears to her eyes. Constancedropped the note as if it burned.

She drew in a shaky breath, tasting cinnamon on the air. When a long-fingered hand crossed her line of vision and picked up that derogatory note, panic threatened. But at least here was one man to whom her family was not indebted. They were free of the marquess’s interference in their lives. There was a long pause as the marquess read the note, and then the harsh sound of parchment being torn into pieces.

“Get out, and do not show your face again,” Ettington demanded. “You will get your funds soon enough, but if I hear slander of the Granges’ reputations, I will personally see to it that no one will employ you again. Is that understood?”

Constance experienced a moment of divine pleasure when the fish-skinned bully looked ready to cast up his accounts. The whole world knew to fear the cold-hearted marquess’s displeasure.

“Yes, my lord.” Medley fled.

The fair-haired marquess advanced and, once Medley was beyond the drawing room doors, turned to the hearth to consign the rudely penned note to the flames.

As firelight reflected off the large, diamond cravat pin Ettington always wore, Constance struggled to control her envy. Lack of money was a problem Jack Overton, Marquess of Ettington, would never have. He could easily afford the expensively tailored coat and breeches that defined his lean form. And if memory served, he’d commissioned yet another carriage he couldn’t possibly need just this last week. The absurdly handsome man, blessed with more wealth than Constance could comprehend, paused before the fire. He watched the paper burn with one booted foot perched on the hearth, and then he sauntered out the door. Was he born knowing exactly how to draw attention or had someone taught him?

As Constancedrew in a full breath, she realized that the duke’s twin sister Virginia, Lady Orkney, had said nothing during the exchange. Embarrassment flooded her cheeks with heat, and she turned to find Virginia white-faced and shaking. Concerned, she set aside her problems. Virginia’s nerves were never very sturdy on the best of days. The display of aggression from the men appeared to have frightened her considerably. Constance crossed the room and grasped Virginia’s hands to rub some warmth back into them. The pale beauty’s breathing slowed, but then a great shudder jerked her hands from Constance’s grip.

“I’m sorry. I overreacted again, didn’t I, Pixie?”

Constance smiled at the use of her nickname. “I told you your nervousness didn’t bother me.” But she bit her lip to keep her anxiety under control. “Do you know I pity your brother’s intended? He can truly be terrifying when he’s displeased. I almost felt sorry for Medley.”

“Medley doesn’t deserve your pity. My brother is nothing but hot air. Though I agree with you—Jack’s wife will have a hard time keeping him happy.”

“That she will.”Constance shuddered. “Would you like some tea?”

“I have already requested tea,” Ettington replied, strolling into the room as if nothing unpleasant had occurred a few minutes earlier.

Given the rate her heart was beating, Constance could not understand how the man could appear so placid. Perhaps, beneath that elegantly expensive exterior, he was a hard soul who gave no thought to the distress of the lower classes as her friend, Cullen Brampton, claimed. Cullen thought the marquess an insufferable prig.

She did her best to give the appearance of looking at Ettington, but avoided meeting his gaze. Although his familiar arrogance irritated, being at complete odds with her friend’s fragile state, she had no wish to resume their old feud in front of Virginia.

Virginia’s smile returned. “Thank you, Jack. We would like tea very much.”

When Ettington sat beside the box of unpaid bills,Constance’s heartbeat sped up. She had left the overall figure refolded on the cushion, but the final bill for her past man-of-business’s services was face-up for him to view.

Ettington glanced to the side, appeared to read the amount, and then turned a bland face their way. “So how was your morning?”

Virginia answered promptly and the marquess soon had her chatting about their conversations as if it were the height of entertainment. Constance gritted her teeth. Ettington had a knack for managing his sister’s mood, but if he ever treated Constanceas such a brainless ninny, she would dump the contents of the teapot on him.

“The tea is taking too long, sister, could you hurry the servants along? I really am very parched.”

Like a marionette at a traveling play,Virginiahurried off to do his bidding. When his sister was out of sight and earshot, Ettington stared hard at Constance. She met his intense, blue gaze nervously.

“I apologize for my sister’s response to your plight,” he told her in a low voice. “She doesn’t handle confrontations well.”

“Your sister cannot help but react as she does. She is trying.”

Ettington’s weary sigh rattled though the room. “You mean unlike me? Did I step on your toes again, Miss Grange? Should I have allowed that overpaid oaf to insult a woman under my own roof?”

Her heart thumped. “What do you mean overpaid?”

Ettington unfolded the paper and ran his finger over the scrawled figures. “His bill holds some inaccuracies that he should be taken to task over. I do hope he hasn’t cheated you of more than just this one amount. He has either done it in a very clever fashion, or it is an excellent example of incompetence.”

Constance leapt up and snatched the note from his fingers. “I will go over them all myself.”

“There are a great many papers in that box,” he remarked.

Did he think her first glance hadn’t terrified her enough?

She didn’t care for his interest, so she grabbed up the box and moved it away. “Then I may ask Virginia to assist me. I’m sure that between the two of us we can ferret out any further inaccuracies.”

Ettington’s deep, rumbling laugh chilled her, but she’d not let him cower her. She glared at him until he stopped.

He wiped his eyes. “Surely you’re not too young to remember the last time Virginia tried to fathom the exact distance between your home to ours. It took her a week and, judging by the headache I acquired as a result, I fear she will not volunteer to tally sums again.”

“Oh, what a terrible thing to say about your twin. I doubt you suffered.”

“My sister has many talents, but mathematics is not one of them. She outshines me in many other, far more important arenas. One of them includes having an acknowledged, warm heart.”

Constance fidgeted. Secretly she thought his nickname, the Cold-Hearted Marquess, well deserved. But hearing him joke about being cold-hearted, and challenging her to deny it, made her extremely uncomfortable. “One of them includes having the tact to stay out of other people’s affairs.”

Ettington leaned close. “My, my, have your affairs become interesting?” He held her gaze. “What has changed?”

Constance bit her lip. She had not informed her friends of her recent attachment. Not that the decision should interest Ettington one way or the other. But she’d held her tongue to avoid upsetting Virginiawhen her health remained delicate.

Unfortunately, Constancehad never been a proficient liar, and was unusually unsuccessful with Ettington. The marquess would hound her until she confessed. It would be best to get the discussion over and done with. “I am engaged to be married.”

The marquess’s face whitened. “Good God. To whom?”

Constance clenched her hands into fists. “There is no need to sound so surprised at my good fortune. Cullen proposed before I left home, and I was very happy to accept. We will be married in a month.”

The marquess rose to his feet. “I forbid it.”

Constance stumbled back a few steps. “How dare you? You have no right to an opinion on my engagement. You might have Virginia under your control again, but not me. I am not your responsibility.”

The marquess took a step forward. His jaw appeared to be locked in place. She hoped he kept it that way. When Ettington stopped a mere pace from her, she had to raise her chin high to keep him in view.

“You will not marry Cullen.”

Heat stung her cheeks. How dare he attempt to bully her? Well, the marquess could go to the devil for all she cared. She’d not listen to him.

Constance turned her back on him. “The date is set.”

Ettington gripped her upper arms tightly, restraining her when she would have moved further away. “We will continue this discussion later. Alone.”

Constance shivered. “No, we will not.”

Luckily, footsteps clattered across marble. Ettington released her as Virginia swept into the room followed by a tea tray-laden maid. Constance sank into a chair, still shaking from the marquess’s touch. She didn’t know why they could never remain civil. It wasn’t as if he was truly cruel, but he was bossy and opinionated. She just needed to learn how to better ignore his pronouncements.

Fearing Virginiawould sense her additional distress, she raised her head, determined to defy him silently. The marquess’s lips curled into an unfamiliar smile as he sank into his chair like the grand pasha he aspired to be.

~ * ~

Despite the smile, Jack Overton’s pulse raced with shock. Who the devil was brave enough to take on Pixie as a wife? And how in hell had the devil slipped past his spies to get so close to the chit? Jack gritted his teeth then let out a slow breath. He would see an end to this disastrous misalliance the minute Virginia was occupied elsewhere.

Pixie scowled at him and, despite his anger, he softened a touch. For all her headstrong ways, she was a good girl. As his ward, she’d caused little serious trouble. But she wasn’t under his control now, as she asserted. His guardianship had ended last Christmas, but old habits die hard. He would expect to hear everything, and then he’d end her engagement.

Virginia sat beside Pixie, smiling a little nervously between them. Had she heard the discussion? Pixie had been here for five days and hadn’t said a word about this Cullen fellow. Was Virginia as upset that Pixie had not confided in her as he was?

Jack couldn’t question her while his twin was nearby, but he didn’t often get his former ward alone anymore. Without the role of guardian to give him reason enough for privacy,Virginia tended to hover.

Yet Virginiacontinued to worry him, too.

The depression of her spirits had continued far longer than he’d expected. As a widow, society expected a period of sadness, but the real reason for her fears was known only to a few. It was a nuisance to live on pins and needles, but with luck and time, Virginia improved. She had already taken great leaps since Pixie’s arrival. Now he just needed to get her out of the house and back where she belonged.

Jack shifted in his chair and his hand nudged a piece of parchment that Pixie had left behind. Supposing it was the grand total of debt, he picked it up and, while toying with the top edge, caught another glare aimed squarely at his innards. While his sister filled the void with nervous chatter, he let the paper slide between his fingers. Across the room, Pixie bit her lip, but he thought it an attempt to keep her annoyance with him in check.

He stifled a laugh. Her nickname was fitting. Small, dark haired, and always emotional. Pixie had grown beautiful, but had not grown out of her propensity for trouble. Given the wild flare in her eyes, she would like nothing better than to grasp a spear from the wall with which to run him through.

He let his gaze drift over her gown. Mrs. Grange wasn’t running up bills of sale on Pixie’s behalf. He hoped the new gowns ordered would get here soon. Pixie looked like a school girl in all that pale, high-necked muslin.

According to Madame du Clair, she would resemble a princess when properly dressed. She’d better. He’d paid the modiste extra to deliver them promptly. He wanted Pixie fit to accompany his sister into society soon. Her impending marriage interfered with his immediate plans for that.

Jack lowered his gaze to her feet. Sensible shoes did not hide the curious turning of her ankles. As he watched, her feet fidgeted. He slowly, ever so curiously, raised his eyes back to her face. Fury blazed in her eyes. Jack enjoyed the gooseflesh that raced down his spine as she held his gaze.

“Jack, are you paying me any attention?”

Jack chuckled. “Forgive me, sister, my mind wandered onto a vexing topic.”

Pixie’s face pinked.

“Hmm, I was just suggesting that you should help Pixie straighten out those papers. Will you?”

When his sister put herself out to ask him to do something, he invariably did as she bade, but on this matter he paused before answering. He wasn’t Pixie’s guardian any longer. He had no right to get involved in her financial affairs again.

But perhaps helping her sort through this mess would convince her to trust his instincts about this marriage. Although he didn’t know this Cullen fellow, Jack doubted he could be the right man for her. Any fellow who’d let her out of his sight for longer than two seconds had no idea what he was getting himself in for. She attracted trouble.

Although Pixie might come to resent his renewed interference in her life, he did want to know the size of the mess she and her mother had made of their finances in so short a time. Their affairs had been secure when he’d had the management of the estate. Pixie should have had a comfortable life ahead of her.

Jack gave Virginia his most charming smile. “As long as Miss Grange has no objections, I would be happy to offer my humble assistance.”

Chapter Two

Constance was thinking of poisons. Not poisons to kill, but poisons to make the marquess very, very sick. She could not understand why he took such perverse pleasure in tormenting someone so far beneath his notice.

She struggled not to clench her fists. Virginia would notice her anger if she conducted herself as she wanted. The term box his ears had always rung with resounding finality, and Constance longed to do precisely that to the insufferable man. Maybe she could just blacken the eyes that skimmed so insultingly over her gown.

It wasn’t possible for everyone to be as well dressed as the Marquess of Ettington and his elegant sister. Virginia did not notice the extent of her shabbiness, but Constance was uncomfortably aware of how outdated her wardrobe had become. The new gowns were supposed to replace them, but now she had no means to pay for them. She would have to pen a note to the modiste to cancel her order. With luck, Madam had not commenced work already.

Seeing no way out of the awkward offer, Constance turned a sunny smile on the marquess. His smug smile slipped.

“If his lordship has the time, I’m sure I could find something for him to tally.”

Such as the number of occasions he thought himself better than others. That could keep him busy for hours.

Virginia rose, excused herself with an assurance she did not normally show, and made her way from the room. Left alone with the arrogant man, with only a self-effacing maid as chaperone, the silence was deafening.

The marquess stood and held out his hand. “Shall we adjourn to the library?”

Constance looked the impeccable marquess over as insultingly as she could, but didn’t get the response she was after. He looked pleased.

Botheration.

Ignoring his outstretched hand, Constance stood and preceded him from the room, grumbling under her breath at how easily he got what he wanted. His low chuckle followed her, but she ignored him, placed the box on the long reading table, and lifted the lid on the catastrophe.

Lord Ettington edged close and unfolded the paper he held. The scent of cinnamon wafted over her again, and she struggled to ignore the impulse to inhale deeply.

“Sweet, merciful heaven,” he said. “Did you read this?”

“Of course I did. Do you believe me incapable?”

“I commend your acting skills. One would think that a woman, faced with almost certain disaster, would react in some feminine fashion. Fainting springs to mind.”

Want to read the rest? You can obtain an electronic copy from Amazon, Apple (thru iTunes) Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

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