The Bride's Seduction
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‘Why not name your price?’ Justin suggested, unclenching his left hand, which had fisted until the nails cut into the palm.
Charlie Winslow got to his feet and began to pace again, finally coming to rest by the window where he stood watching his brother and sisters. ‘There’s a price—and a condition,’ he said finally.
Justin raised his eyebrows. He had been willing to buy back Knightshaye without negotiation and without insisting on examining the books. Winslow had him over a barrel as far as striking a bargain was concerned; it was not possible to conceal his interest, not after seven years of persistent requests to buy the place. ‘What condition?’
‘That you marry my sister.’
‘What?’ Justin found himself on his feet, staring at the baron.
‘That you marry Marina,’ Charlie said stubbornly. ‘Or I won’t sell. There won’t be enough for a dowry for her as well as for Lizzie and she doesn’t deserve to dwindle into a spinster aunt or my mother’s unpaid companion. I’m dashed fond of my sister,’ he added, ‘and I am damned sure my reputation and the lack of the readies is what scuppered her chances on the Marriage Mart.’
‘So you hit on this idea to provide for her,’ Justin observed coldly. ‘And what does Miss Winslow have to say to it, might I ask?’
‘She knows nothing about it. And that’s another thing, you must not tell her, not a word, or she will never agree.’
‘You flatter me.’
Charlie flapped a hand, dismissing his own tactlessness. ‘Don’t mean you’re not as eligible as they come—title, fortune and all that—and now that other matter with Miss Henslow has blown over, there’s no reason why—’ He broke off in the face of the hard glint in Justin’s eyes. ‘Well, no need to go into that, all a hum, I dare say, but you aren’t involved with anyone now, are you? You’re not engaged—if you ever were, that is...’ He found himself in the mire again, took a deep breath and restarted. ‘Thing is, Marina’s dashed proud and she wouldn’t like it if she thought I was fixing something up, do you see?’
‘I think I do,’ Justin said grimly, trampling firmly on thoughts of his former love’s golden beauty and avaricious little heart. The two men sat down again, eyeing each other warily. It was as though they were sitting over the opening hand of a game of cards, sizing up the odds, deciding their wagers. ‘And what is the price—beside your sister’s hand, that is?’
Lord Winslow named a sum that was at the top end of Justin’s expectations and sat there, looking hopeful.
‘I will pay that and add another two thousand—but I will not marry your sister.’
‘Thought you might say that,’ Charlie said equably. ‘But it’s the money and Marina, or nothing. If you won’t buy on my terms, I’ll sell to someone else and I will get the lawyers to put a clause in the deeds so it can never be sold to you or your heirs.’
Justin felt the anger surge up hot and powerful and was surprised to find himself still sitting down, hands calmly clasped.His self-control must be better than he thought.
‘So, like your father, you have a talent for blackmail,’ he observed evenly.
‘Damn it—’ the younger man looked hurt, but not insulted ‘—I’m doing it for my sister.’ He frowned. ‘What do you mean about my father?’
‘That there was no reason why my father, had he wished to gamble with yours, could not have met any money stake, however high. He wagered Knightshaye because he was blackmailed into it.’
‘Why?’ Charlie demanded bluntly. ‘He was a hard devil, my father, I’m not denying that, but blackmail? What did he know about your father that could force him to that risk?’
‘He had nothing on Father, but it was a matter that concerned two other people, one dead now, one still alive. It is not something I can speak of. You will just have to take my word for it.’
The younger man grimaced. ‘Very well. But you can call it what you like, you won’t insult me—take Marina or the deal is off.’
‘And if your sister does not wish to marry me?’ Even as he spoke, Justin knew he was giving way simply by letting himself consider the proposition. There was something about Charlie Winslow’s demeanour that warned him the younger man was absolutely determined on this plan. He might be weak, but that very weakness made him stubborn when he was driven into a corner. If Justin wanted Knightshaye, he was going to have to dance to Winslow’s tune.
‘If you give me your word of honour you will do your best to attach her interest and she still won’t take you, then we’ll call it quits. Damn it, I can’t blame you if she turns down a chance like that. But I want your pledge you’ll give it your best effort for two months—and that you won’t ever breathe a word of this arrangement to her.’
Justin got to his feet and walked to the window. The Winslow family were making their way back to the house: young Giles was more or less in control of a muddy, panting Hector; Miss Elizabeth was talking vehemently and using her hands to describe what appeared to be an elaborate hat. And Miss Winslow—Marina—was listening attentively. As they reached the steps she glanced up at the window, saw him—and smiled.
It was a flash of friendly goodwill in a face distinguished more by pleasant symmetry and colouring than beauty. And it conjured up a vivid opposite in his mind. Golden hair, blue eyes, a perfect little nose and red lips always trembling on the edge of a calculated pout.
He turned back, holding out his hand. ‘Very well. I agree to your price and your condition. You have my word on it.’
‘Take Hector down to the scullery and do not dare to bring him back up until he is completely clean and dry,’ Marina ordered firmly, as Giles with his hound bundled through the front door behind his sisters.
‘Charlie should engage another tutor for Giles,’ Lizzie said crossly, twisting to examine the hem of her walking dress, which had been trodden on by large paws.
‘It seems such an extravagance when I can teach him; besides, recall how distracted he made poor Mr Livingstone. When he is older, of course, and needs to begin classics—’
She broke off as the study door opened and Lord Mortenhoe emerged, her brother on his heels.
‘Miss Winslow, Miss Elizabeth. How was your walk?’
‘Very pleasant, thank you, my lord.’ What was Charlie about? He appeared to have positively propelled his guest into the hallway and now was making no effort to either call Bunting or show him out himself. Lord Mortenhoe was regarding her and she felt her colour rising; no doubt she was unbecomingly windswept from the excursion. ‘If you will excuse me...’
‘I’ve invited Mortenhoe to dinner tomorrow night,’ Charlie said abruptly.
‘Oh! I mean...how delightful.’ Charlie must be out of his mind! Aunt and Uncle Thredgold and Cousin Hugh were no sort of company to entertain an earl. Leaving aside Uncle Thredgold’s tendency to talk of nothing but his experiments in cattle breeding, Aunt’s deafness and Hugh’s almost perpetual fit of the sullens, the table would be unbalanced with too many men, and the menu, unless some drastic alterations were made, would be decidedly uninspiring, having been chosen with the Thredgolds’ bland preferences in mind.
‘I am sure it will be.’ The earl was accepting his gloves and hat from Bunting. ‘Until tomorrow evening, Miss Winslow.’
Charlie escaped back into his study before the front door had closed on Lord Mortenhoe, leaving his sisters regarding each other speculatively in the hall.
‘It is too bad of Charlie,’ Marina declared, pulling off her gloves. ‘Now who can we possibly ask at this late notice? For, fond as we are of the Thredgolds, I really do not think Lord Mortenhoe will be much entertained by them.’
‘They are dead bores,’ Lizzie retorted. ‘Thank goodness they have taken rooms and are not staying with us as they did last year.’
‘They are family,’ Marina said repressively, leading the way into the drawing room before Lizzie made any more unfortunate remarks in front of the servants. ‘It behoves us to be hospitable, and besides, it gives Mama much pleasure to be with Aunt.’ She cast off her bonnet and sat on the sofa, not troubling to remove her pelisse. ‘Now, who would not be offended by a late invitation? We need another lady and another couple at the very least to leaven the mix.’
‘I could come,’ Lizzie offered hopefully, then subsided at a look from her sister. ‘How about Mr and Mrs Philpott? They never stand on ceremony.’
Certainly their next-door neighbours were a sensible suggestion and, as they had just that morning returned from a visit to an ailing parent, such short notice could be explained away. ‘And I will ask Priscilla Hinton,’ Marina said with a flash of inspiration. ‘Her husband is out of town and we are good enough friends for me to explain the situation.’
‘Mrs Hinton is very pretty.’
‘Well, yes. What of it?’
‘You do not want Lord Mortenhoe to flirt with her, and he is sure to.’
‘I am sure the earl will do no such thing, and, even if he should, Priscilla is more than capable of dealing with it,’ Marina retorted, flustered. ‘Now, I must go and speak with Cook about the menu. I do wish Charlie would think things through sometimes.’
‘He is very good looking.’ Lizzie, the picture of innocence, was twirling the strings of her bonnet.
‘No, silly, Lord Mortenhoe. I think he looks nice.’
‘And I think he looked angry,’ Marina said thoughtfully, recalling the flash of green in his eyes as they parted in the hall and the controlled tension in his long frame. ‘I do hope Charlie is not up to something.’
Marina gazed distractedly around the drawing room and prayed she would never have to live through another evening that threatened so much social embarrassment.
Mrs Hinton, the sprightly wife of a diplomat and an old friend of Marina’s, was giving an excellent impression of fascination with Uncle Thredgold’s lecture on the finer points of Devon Red cattle, Mrs Philpott was doing her best to communicate with Mrs Thredgold, who stubbornly refused to use her ear trumpet in company, and Lady Winslow was discussing the benefits of the Harrogate waters with Mr Philpott while anxiously watching her nephew Hugh.
With a sinking heart Marina saw the young man had abandoned his usual sullen slouch, adopting instead a brooding silence that he doubtless believed to be Byronic. From under thick brows he stared moodily at Mrs Hinton, who fortunately appeared unaware of his attention.
Charlie meanwhile was quite impervious to any awkwardness or lack of social sparkle. ‘What is Cook intending for dinner?’ he enquired with a glance at the mantel clock. ‘I’m devilish hungry.’
‘A loin of pork, lobster with a white wine sauce, Milanese escalopes, a timbale—’ Marina broke off the recital of the dishes she had persuaded Cook were the bare minimum to lay before an earl and regarded her brother with a frown. ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Charlie?’
‘Just thinking you look dashed pretty this evening. Why have you got that cap thing on, though?’
‘Because I am a twenty-six-year-old spinster and it is appropriate evening wear.’
‘Wish you’d take it off.’
‘Certainly not! Really, Charlie, since when have you taken the slightest interest in what I wear?’
‘Um...’ He looked uncomfortable. ‘Ah, there’s the knocker, must be Mortenhoe.’
Oh, good! What dreadful timing, Marina thought, flinching as Aunt Thredgold raised her voice in the apparent belief that Mrs Philpott was as deaf as she. ‘...disgusting behaviour! I said to the Vicar...’
‘Need sturdy hocks if they’re to be the slightest use at stud...’ That was Uncle Thredgold, well away now.
‘...unfortunate smell of rotten eggs, of course,’ Mr Philpott remarked just as Lord Mortenhoe entered the room.
Marina fixed a smile of welcome on her lips and wondered if it were possible that his lordship had missed any of this sophisticated conversation. His eyes met hers and he bowed gravely. There was just the hint of a twitch at the corner of his mouth as he straightened up and turned to his host. No, of course not, he had heard every word. At least he showed no sign of considering himself above his company; her apprehension ebbed a little.
‘Lord Mortenhoe.’ Mama sounded her usual placid self as she shook hands, blissfully impervious to the fact that one of the leading lights of society was facing an evening of the deepest boredom at her table. ‘May I introduce you to my sister Mrs Thredgold, her husband...’
She moved around the room, making the presentations, finishing with her daughter. Justin smiled. ‘But I already have the pleasure of Miss Winslow’s acquaintance. How are Master Giles and his hound?’
Lady Winslow drifted away, apparently content that her guest of honour’s entertainment was in safe hands. ‘In what can only be described as rude health, my lord, although Hector is in disgrace and has been confined to the stables for treeing Mrs Philpott’s cat in the Square and then growling at the gardener when he tried to rescue it.’
‘Deplorable,’ Lord Mortenhoe agreed. He was regarding her in a way that made her feel as though they were alone in the room—a most disconcerting sensation. Marina decided she had been living rather too quiet a life recently if the arrival of one tonnish gentleman for dinner was enough to put her out of countenance. It was a seductively pleasant experience, though, to be looked at in quite that manner.
‘Mrs Philpott has been very forgiving about it, although the gardener had to be placated with a gratuity. Do you still keep a pet dog, Mrs Hinton?’ She turned slightly to include her friend in the conversation and Hugh, who had been edging closer with his habitual gaucheness, lounged away again.
‘No, not since little Tottie died just after Christmas.’ Mrs Hinton, a slender honey blonde, looked up through her lashes at Lord Mortenhoe. ‘Doubtless you find me foolishly sentimental, my lord, but I could not bear to replace her.’
‘Not at all,’ he said sympathetically. ‘I lost my favourite hound last year and it was months before I could consider looking for a new pup. What do you think, Winslow? Are we both too sentimental?’
Once drawn into the discussion, Charlie was soon agreeing that the loss of a favourite pet was a dashed miserable business. Marina could not quite work out how it happened, but suddenly she was talking to Lord Mortenhoe again and Charlie was bearing Mrs Hinton away to see his aunt, who just happened to have a litter of pug puppies to dispose of.
It was too bad of Charlie, removing the most personable of their guests from Lord Mortenhoe’s vicinity! She now had to find him someone else congenial to talk to; she had been counting on her friend’s vivacious conversation and sophisticated charm to distract him from the Thredgolds’ oddities. What might he have in common with the Philpotts?
‘Have you ever taken the waters at Harrogate, my lord?’ She steered him gently in the direction of their neighbours. ‘Mr and Mrs Philpott have just returned from there.’
‘No, I never have. Did you find it a pleasant experience, Mrs Philpott?’ There, now, that was better. Mrs Philpott was a conversable, well-bred woman with an easy style. She and Lord Mortenhoe were soon engaged in a discussion of the waters and whether the accommodations in the spa town might suit an aged aunt of his lordship who suffered greatly from gout and who was bored with Bath and Cheltenham. Mr Philpott joined in with a recommendation for a local livery company and Marina was just thinking she could safely slip away and have a second look at the place settings when her mother appeared, her sister at her side.
‘Araminta dear, Mr and Mrs Philpott are just explaining the benefits of the Harrogate waters to his lordship. I am sure you would find them most energising. What do you think, Mrs Philpott?’
Once again Marina found herself on the outside of the group with Lord Mortenhoe at her side. ‘I am sorry,’ she murmured as they moved away slightly. ‘My aunt’s deafness makes her a little unaware of the fact other people are engaged in conversation. I do hope you had heard enough to be able to advise your relative.’
‘Quite enough, I thank you.’ He regarded her with mock-seriousness as she glanced across the room to her uncle. ‘Would you think me very rude if I did not engage your uncle in conversation on the subject of cattle breeding? I must confess to being terrified of the beasts and he is sure to despise me.’
That surprised a gurgle of amusement from her. The earl was proving to have a quiet sense of humour, which threatened to overturn her poise. ‘My lord! I really cannot believe such a thing, although I have to confess that my uncle is somewhat single-minded in his enthusiasm.’
‘And what are your enthusiasms, Miss Winslow?’ He stopped, leaning one hand negligently on a sideboard, and effectively foiling her efforts to guide him across the room. This was mystifying. Much as she might enjoy his undivided attention, surely the last thing he wanted was the company of the old maid of the family?
‘Mine? Why, I hardly know how to answer you, my lord—’ She broke off, perplexed at the question. ‘I have many interests, of course; Mama allows me to run the household and I oversee Giles’s education. Then there is Lizzie to accompany about town, and my sewing. And my friends, of course, although they are all married now and have young families.’
‘But no enthusiasms?’ he persisted.
‘Ladies do not on the whole have enthusiasms, my lord! Oh, perhaps for good causes, although to really throw oneself into that I always feel one needs to be older and better endowed with wealth than I am. Or perhaps I am just using that as an excuse.’ She smiled ruefully. ‘Gentlemen may have enthusiasms—for politics or sport, for example.’
Lord Mortenhoe’s eyes were on her face and something in them, some gentleness, made her feel suddenly sorry for herself, which was ridiculous. For someone who had singularly failed to oblige her family by attracting even one eligible offer in the course of three expensive Seasons she was most fortunate in her lot.
‘What are your enthusiasms, Hugh?’ she asked her cousin, aware that he had once more strayed into their orbit, and grateful for the distraction. Another moment and she was going to succumb to the sympathy in those hazel eyes and start explaining just how fortunate she was.
The youth shrugged with his habitual lack of grace. ‘Haven’t any.’
‘Not sport?’ his lordship enquired. ‘Horses, perhaps?’
A trace of animation crossed the sullen features. ‘No point, but, if I could, racehorses—’
‘Surely not gambling, Hugh?’ As soon as she had spoken Marina could have bitten her tongue, for the shuttered expression descended again.
‘Or bloodlines and breeding?’ Lord Mortenhoe suggested.
‘Oh, yes, breeding. To be able to produce such beauty and strength is above everything. I read all the stud books, follow form—but Papa will not hear of it. Says I know nothing about it and I would do better to study his work with cattle. Cattle!’
‘If he has built up a flourishing line, I can understand he might be disappointed if you do not intend to maintain it,’ Mortenhoe said thoughtfully. ‘But horse breeding could run alongside cattle breeding, do you not think?’
Stunned by being asked his opinion, Hugh merely gaped. ‘Er...yes.’
‘Would you like to visit my stud at Newmarket? I will ask your father after dinner. If you would be interested, that is.’
‘Oh, yes! Thank you, my lord. Your stud! I’ll speak to him now, try to persuade him.’
‘That was kind of you. I do not think I have ever heard Hugh utter so many words at one time before.’ Marina watched her cousin talking animatedly to his surprised parent.
‘He is lonely, I think. Possibly he has no one to share his interest. And here he is rather out of his depth. You are the only young person present and you have to talk to the visitors, not to family.’
‘Now you are being ridiculous, my lord,’ Marina chided. ‘Hugh is seventeen, I am...considerably older.’
‘Of course, I should have realised you were on the shady side of thirty.’
‘Certainly not—!’ She broke off, choking back a laugh at her own instinctive indignation. ‘You are teasing me, my lord.’
‘Only a little—after all, you have just done your best to convince me you live the life of a sober spinster.’
‘I do not!’ Natural honesty caught up with her tongue and she added, ‘Well, perhaps, but that, after all, is what I am.’
‘And do sober spinsters go driving with gentlemen?’
Was that an invitation? Surely not. ‘I see no reason why not, my lord, should they be asked.’
‘Good. We will discuss the where and when of that later. If I am not mistaken your uncle is coming over.’
He does intend to invite me to drive with him! But why? Flustered, Marina managed to smile at her uncle, who had Hugh in tow.
‘My son tells me you have invited him to visit your stud, my lord.’ Mr Thredgold was, as usual, abrupt.
‘Yes, sir, unless you should dislike it. He seems to have inherited your interest in animal breeding, doubtless as a result of observing your renowned expertise at close hand.’
A faintly smug expression came over Mr Thredgold’s face at the compliment. ‘Horses, though—how is that going to contribute to the Thredgold herd?’
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