Marcus frowned. “There are more important things.”

“Such as?” St. Vincent inquired with the exaggerated patience of a rebellious lad being subjected to an unwanted lecture from his decrepit grandfather. “I suppose you’ll say something like ‘social progress’? Tell me, Westcliff…” His gaze turned sly. “If the devil proposed a bargain to you that all the starving orphans in England would be well-fed from now on, but in return you would never be able to lie with a woman again, which would you choose? The orphans, or your own gratification?”

“I never answer hypothetical questions.”

St. Vincent laughed. “As I thought. Bad luck for the orphans, it seems.”

“I didn’t say—” Marcus began, and stopped impatiently. “Never mind. My guests are waiting. You are welcome to continue this wholly pointless conversation in here, or you may accompany me to the public receiving rooms.”

“I’ll go with you,” Hunt said at once, unfolding his long body from the chair. “My wife will be looking for me.”

“So will mine,” Shaw said agreeably, rising also.

St. Vincent shot Marcus a glance of bright mischief. “God spare me from ever letting a woman put a ring through my nose—and worse, appearing so bloody pleased about it.”

It was a sentiment that Marcus happened to agree with.

However, as the four men strolled negligently away from the study, Marcus couldn’t help but reflect on the curious fact that Simon Hunt, who, aside from St. Vincent, had been the most dedicated bachelor Marcus had ever known, seemed unexpectedly content in the chains of marriage. Knowing more than anyone how tightly Hunt had clung to his freedom, and the scant number of positive relationships that he’d ever had with women, Marcus had been astonished by Hunt’s willingness to surrender his autonomy. And to a woman like Annabelle, who at first had seemed little more than a shallow, self-absorbed husband hunter. But it had eventually become clear that an unusual degree of devotion existed between the pair, and Marcus had been forced to concede that Hunt had chosen well for himself.

“No regrets?” he murmured to Hunt as they strode down the hall, while Shaw and St. Vincent followed at a more leisurely pace.

Hunt glanced at him with a questioning smile. He was a big, dark-haired man, with the same sense of uncompromising masculinity and the same avid interest in hunting and sportsmanship that Marcus possessed. “About what?”

“Being led around by the nose by your wife.”

That drew a wry grin from Hunt, and he shook his head. “If my wife does lead me around, Westcliff, it’s by an altogether different body part. And no, I have no regrets whatsoever.”

“I suppose there’s a certain convenience in being married,” Marcus mused aloud. “Having a woman close at hand to satisfy your needs, not to mention the fact that a wife is undoubtedly more economical than a mistress. There is, moreover, the begetting of heirs to consider…”

Hunt laughed at his effort to cast the issue in a practical light. “I didn’t marry Annabelle for convenience. And although I haven’t tabulated any numbers, I can assure you that she is not cheaper than a mistress. As for the begetting of heirs, that was the farthest thing from my mind when I proposed to her.”

“Then why did you?”

“I would tell you, but not long ago you said that you hoped I wouldn’t start—how did you put it?—‘pollinate the air with maudlin sentiment.’”

“You believe yourself to be in love with her.”

“No,” Hunt countered in a relaxed manner, “I am in love with her.”

Marcus lifted his shoulders in a brief shrug. “If believing that makes marriage more palatable to you, so be it.”

“Good God, Westcliff…” Hunt murmured, a curious smile on his face, “haven’t you ever been in love?”

“Of course. Obviously I have found that some women are preferable to others in terms of disposition and physical appearance—”

“No, no, no …I’m not referring to finding someone who is ‘preferable.’ I mean completely being absorbed by a woman who fills you with desperation, longing, ecstasy…”

Marcus threw him a disparaging glance. “I haven’t time for that nonsense.”

Hunt annoyed him by laughing. “Then love won’t be a factor in the decision of whom you’re going to marry?”

“Absolutely not. Marriage is too important an issue to be decided by mercurial emotions.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Hunt agreed easily. A bit too easily, as if he didn’t really believe what he was saying. “A man like you should choose a wife in a logical manner. I will be interested in seeing how you accomplish it.”

They reached one of the receiving rooms, where Livia was tactfully encouraging guests to prepare for the formal procession into the dining hall. As soon as she saw Marcus, she threw him a quick frown, for so far he had left her to deal with the assemblage on her own. He returned her shaming glance with an unrepentant one. Moving farther into the room, Marcus saw that Thomas Bowman and his wife, Mercedes, were standing immediately to his right.

Marcus shook hands with Bowman, a quiet and heavy-set man with a broomlike mustache of such thickness that it nearly atoned for the scarcity of hair on his head. When he was in society, Bowman displayed the perpetually distracted manner of someone who would rather be doing other things. It was only when the discussion came around to business—any kind of business—that his attention was engaged with rapier sharpness.

“Good evening,” Marcus murmured, and bowed over Mercedes Bowman’s hand. She was so thin that the knuckles and ridges beneath her glove formed a surface suitable for shredding carrots. She was an abrasive woman, a bundle of nerves and coiled aggressiveness. “Please accept my regrets for not being able to welcome you this afternoon,” Marcus continued. “And allow me to say how agreeable your return to Stony Cross Park is.”

“Oh, my lord,” Mercedes trilled, “we are so very delighted to stay at your magnificent estate once again! And as to this afternoon—we thought nothing of your absence, other than to acknowledge that an important man like you, with so many concerns and responsibilities, must find innumerable demands made upon your time.” One of her arms gestured in a way that reminded Marcus of the movements of a praying mantis. “Ah—I see my two lovely girls standing right over there—” Her voice raised even higher as she called to them, and motioned sharply for them to come to her. “Girls! Girls, look whom I’ve found. Come talk to Lord Westcliff!”

Marcus kept his face expressionless as he saw the raised brows of a few people standing nearby. Glancing in the direction of Mercedes’s rapid gesticulations, he saw the Bowman sisters, who were both transformed from the dusty imps playing behind the stable yards earlier in the day. His gaze latched on to Lillian, who was dressed in a pale green gown, the bodice of which seemed to be held up only by a pair of little gold clips at the shoulders. Before he could control the direction of his wayward thoughts, he imagined detaching those clips and letting the green silk fall away from the creamy pale skin of her chest and shoulders—

Marcus dragged his gaze up to Lillian’s face. Her shining sable hair was pinned neatly atop her head in an intricate mass that looked nearly too heavy for her slender neck to support. With her hair drawn completely away from her forehead, her eyes appeared more catlike than usual. As she looked back at him, a faint blush colored the crests of her cheeks, and she dipped her chin in a cautious nod. It was obvious that the last thing she wanted was to cross the room to them—to him—and Marcus could not blame her.

“There is no need to summon your daughters, Mrs. Bowman,” he murmured. “They are enjoying the company of their friends.”

“Their friends,” Mercedes exclaimed scornfully. “If you mean that scandalous Annabelle Hunt, I can assure you that I do not condone—”

“I have come to hold Mrs. Hunt in the highest regard,” Marcus said, giving the woman a level stare.

Taken aback by the pronouncement, Mercedes paled a little and hastily reversed herself. “If you, with your superior judgment, have chosen to esteem Mrs. Hunt, then I must certainly concur, my lord. In fact, I have always thought—”

“Westcliff,” Thomas Bowman interrupted, having little interest in the subject of his daughters or whom they had befriended, “when will we have an opportunity to discuss the business matters that were brought up in our last correspondence?”

“Tomorrow, if you like,” Marcus replied. “We’ve organized an early morning ride, followed by breakfast.”

“I will forgo the ride, but I will see you at breakfast.”

They shook hands, and Marcus took his leave of them with a shallow bow, turning to converse with other guests who sought his attention. Soon a newcomer joined the group, and they quickly made room for the diminutive figure of Georgiana, Lady Westcliff…Marcus’s mother. She was heavily powdered, her silvery hair elaborately coiffured, and her wrists, neck, and ears heavily ornamented with brilliant jewels. Even her cane sparkled, the gilded handle paved with inset diamonds.

Some elderly women affected a crusty exterior but harbored a heart of gold underneath. The Countess of Westcliff was not one of those women. Her heart—the existence of which was highly arguable—was definitely not made of gold, or any remotely malleable substance. Physically speaking, the countess was not a beauty, nor had she ever been. If one were to replace her expensive garments with a plain broadcloth dress and apron, she would easily have been mistaken for an aging milkmaid. She had a round face; a small mouth; flat, birdlike eyes; and a nose of no remarkable shape or size. Her most distinguishing aspect was an air of peevish disenchantment, like that of a child who had just opened a wrapped birthday present to discover that it was the same thing she had received the year before.

“Good evening, my lady,” Marcus said to his mother, regarding her with a wry smile. “We are honored that you have decided to join us this evening.” The countess frequently eschewed well-populated dinners like this, preferring to take her meals in one of her private rooms upstairs. Tonight it seemed that she had decided to make an exception.

“I wanted to see if there were any interesting guests in this crowd,” the countess replied somewhat grimly, her regal gaze sweeping the room. “From the looks of them, however, it seems the usual pack of dullards.”

There were a few nervous titters and chortles from the group, as they chose—erroneously—to assume that the comment had been made in jest.

“You may wish to reserve your opinion until you’ve been introduced to a few more people,” Marcus replied, thinking of the Bowman sisters. His judgmental mother would find no end of diversions in that incorrigible pair.

Adhering to the order of precedence, Marcus escorted the countess to the dining hall, while those of lower rank followed. Dinners at Stony Cross Park were famously lavish, and this one was no exception. Eight courses of fish, game, poultry, and beef were served, accompanied by fresh flower arrangements that were brought to the table with each new remove. They began with turtle soup, broiled salmon with capers, perch and mullet in cream, and succulent John Dory fish dressed with a delicate shrimp sauce. The next course consisted of peppered venison, herb-garnished ham, gently fried sweetbreads floating in steaming gravy, and crisp-skinned roast fowl. And so on and so forth, until the guests were stuffed and lethargic, their faces flushed from the constant replenishing of their wineglasses by attentive footmen. The dinner was concluded with a succession of platters filled with almond cheesecakes, lemon puddings, and rice souffles.

Abstaining from dessert, Marcus drank a glass of port and entertained himself by stealing lightning-quick glances at Lillian Bowman. In the rare moments when she was still and quiet, Lillian looked like a demure young princess. But as soon as she began talking—making gestures with her fork and freely interrupting the men’s conversation—all appearance of regalness dropped away. Lillian was far too direct, far too certain that what she said was interesting and worthy of being listened to. She made no attempt to seem impressed with the opinions of others, and she seemed incapable of being deferential to anyone.

After the rituals of port for the men, tea for the ladies, and a last few rounds of idle conversation, the guests dispersed. As Marcus walked slowly to the great hall with a group of guests that included the Hunts, he became aware that Annabelle was behaving a bit strangely. She walked so close to him that their elbows kept bumping, and she fanned herself enthusiastically even though the interior of the manor was quite cool. Squinting at her quizzically through the great puffs of scented air that she blew his way, Marcus asked, “Is it too warm in here for you, Mrs. Hunt?”

“Why, yes …do you feel warm too?”

“No.” He smiled down at her, wondering why Annabelle abruptly stopped fanning and gave him a speculative gaze.

“Do you feel anything?” she asked.

Amused, Marcus shook his head. “May I ask what prompts your concern, Mrs. Hunt?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. I just wondered if perhaps you might have noticed something different about me.”

Marcus gave her a quick, impersonal inspection. “Your coiffure,” he guessed. Having grown up with two sisters, he had learned that whenever they asked his opinion on their appearance, and refused to tell him why, it usually had something to do with their hairstyle. Though it was a bit inappropriate to discuss the personal appearance of his best friend’s wife, Annabelle seemed to regard him in a brotherly light.

Annabelle grinned ruefully at his reply. “Yes, that’s it. Forgive me if I am behaving a bit oddly, my lord. I fear I may have had a bit too much wine.”

Marcus laughed quietly. “Perhaps some night air will clear your head.”

Coming beside them, Simon Hunt caught the last remark, and he settled his hand at his wife’s waist. Smiling, he touched his lips to Annabelle’s temple. “Shall I take you out to the back terrace?”

“Yes, thank you.”

Hunt went still, his dark head inclined toward hers. Although Annabelle couldn’t see the arrested expression on her husband’s face, Marcus noticed it, and wondered why Hunt suddenly looked so uncomfortable and distracted. “Excuse us, Westcliff,” Hunt muttered, and pulled his wife away with unwarranted haste, forcing her to hurry to keep up with his ground-eating strides.

Shaking his head with a touch of bafflement, Marcus watched the pair’s precipitate exit from the entrance hall.

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