Loving the MarquessBy: Suzanna Medeiros
Book 1 in the Landing a Lord series
A knock at the door in the middle of the night never brought good news. Casting a longing glance at the welcoming bed she’d been about to sink into, Louisa Evans tied the sash of her dressing gown. Pushing aside the weariness that dragged at her, she hurried downstairs.
She expected to find one of her neighbors when she opened the door and was surprised to find, instead, a stranger. A very tall man with dark hair who sagged against the door frame, his eyes closed. She shivered as the cool autumn air cut through her nightgown and dressing gown.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
When he didn’t reply, she wondered if he were foxed and had somehow stumbled across their cottage. She placed a hand on his arm to gain his attention and repeated her question.
His eyes opened and he pinned her with a gaze that was dark and penetrating.
“I require assistance…” he managed to say before closing his eyes again.
He swayed slightly and started to slide down the doorframe. Moving instinctively, Louisa had her shoulder under his arm in a moment, steadying him as he collapsed. He was much larger than she, and for a second she thought she would collapse with him.
She straightened and stared down, stunned, at where he sat propped against the doorframe. Hesitating only a moment, she leaned over him to smell his breath and detected a faint hint of alcohol. She brought a hand to his forehead and was alarmed to find he had a fever.
Another blast of the night air, uncharacteristically cold this early in September, had her shivering in earnest now. She would have to move the stranger inside and close the door. She didn’t know what was wrong with him, but with his fever he couldn’t afford to catch a chill. She wasn’t strong enough, however, to carry him inside on her own.
Her decision made, she hurried upstairs and rapped on her brother’s door. When he didn’t answer, she entered the room and shook him awake.
“What’s the matter?” he mumbled, his eyes still closed.
“I need your help. There’s a man downstairs who is ill. He collapsed on our doorstep.”
John jolted awake at the mention of the stranger. At eighteen, he was seven years younger than her, but since their father had died, he’d decided it was his duty to protect the family.
He dressed quickly and followed her downstairs to where the man sat, still propped up, in their doorway.
“Who is he?”
Louisa shook her head. “I don’t know, but he’s ill and the cold can’t be good for him. Help me bring him inside so I can close the door.”
They managed to rouse the man enough to help him to his feet, supporting his weight between them. He was unsteady and their progress was slow, but at her insistence they managed to bring him to her room, still warm from her recently banked fire. He collapsed on her bed with a groan.
“I’ll see to his comfort,” she told John. “I saw a horse outside that must belong to our guest. The animal will need to be cared for.”
John set his shoulders and she knew he was going to insist that she look after the horse. She cut him off before he could protest the impropriety of the situation.
“Do you actually believe this man is in any condition to do me harm?”
Her brother hesitated, but it was clear the stranger had lost consciousness. Grumbling something under his breath about bossy sisters, he turned and left to see to the horse.
Louisa occupied herself with rebuilding a fire in the small fireplace before turning to look at the man lying on her bed. Despite her assurances to her brother, she was nervous. She’d nursed their father during his long illness, but caring for this man was nowhere near the same.
She approached the bed and looked down at him, and her heart fluttered as she realized just how handsome he was. His hair was a dark brown, almost black, framing a face that had no doubt caused many other hearts to beat faster, as well. Despite his fever, he was very pale, his skin drawn taught over high cheekbones and a strong jaw that was already showing a hint of stubble.
She swallowed hard as her gaze traveled down the length of him. He was asleep, but his presence filled the room. She shook her head to clear it and turned away, telling herself that caring for this man would be no different than caring for her father as she went to her washstand and poured water from the pitcher into the washbasin. Concentrating on the familiar task, she set the basin on her bedside table, dipped a washcloth into the water, and wrung it out. Her hands were not quite steady as she washed his face, hoping the cool water would bring him a measure of comfort. Her movements were brisk, but slowed when he moaned. His eyes opened and she froze as his black, inscrutable gaze caught and held hers.