Faint giggles sounded down the corridor. Harry couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt like laughing. He was glad Tina still could. He was happier yet that his shy sister was actually entertaining friends. She often hung in the background of the group of wallflowers that had welcomed her into their circle, but she had never previously invited any of them home. He was proud to see her making the effort and being rewarded by it.
As to his own predicament… Harry pushed the unpaid accounts aside and lifted a sheet of paper so worn from repeated handling that it felt more like linen than parchment.
The cursed list of heiresses.
His stomach rebelled. He was a romantic fool to still wish to marry… if not for love, then at least some indication of a harmonious future. Was it so unreasonable to want tolikehis bride? To prefer a wife who also likedhim? Someone he would still be glad to have under his roof after all the accounts were paid. Someone who would be as pleased to beget his children as she was to bear his title.
“Fairy stories,” he muttered in disgust.
That future didn’t exist for him. Had never existed. Father had seen to that.
If only the marquess had curbed the family’s excess spending years ago! There was little to be done about the entailed properties, but the town house they rented in fashionable Mayfair was grotesquely expensive.
But what would the alternative have looked like? He rubbed his face. No Eton or Cambridge for him. No governess and tutors for his timid, bluestocking sister. No gentlemen’s clubs for Harry and his father. No tailored evening costumes for them, orà la modeFrench gowns for Tina. No London town house. No fancy chef. No horses, no carriages, no hackney fare. Likely no invitations, either.
Harry and Tina could have raised themselves like stray cats in one of the derelict country estates. Then there would be no chance of Tina making a good match. And no chance of Harry attracting an heiress who could rescue anyone.
He sighed. He could blame his father’s profligacy all he liked—and he would not be mistaken—but the truth was, acceptance into the beau monde was highly conditional… and very expensive. If they’d spent a penny less, Harry might not be in a position where saving his family with a strategic alliance would even be possible.
Now it was up to him to pick a name on the list and woo the chit until she consented to be his bride.
The sound of laughter down the hallway grew louder, followed by footsteps in this direction. It didn’t sound like seven pairs of feet, which made sense. For Tina’s first time inviting a friend home, of course she would only start with one or two. Playing hostess to more would likely feel overwhelming.
The friends must be leaving. From the sound of it, they would be heading past the open study on their way to the front door.
Out of curiosity, he glanced up from his list of heiresses as they passed his study.
Not friends, plural.Friend.
Miss Bianca White.
He leapt to his feet instinctively. She stumbled when she saw him, but was carried forward by momentum. In the space of a heartbeat, she’d disappeared from view.
Harry shoved the battered list into his pocket and raced into the corridor.
She spun around, dipped a curtsey. “My lord.”
He didn’t want her to curtsey. He wanted to grab her to him, cradle her soft face in his hands, and crush his lips to hers. It would forever haunt him that he hadn’t taken the offered kiss when he’d had the chance.
For Tina’s sake, he forced himself to act as though his acquaintance with Miss White was merely casual. Which it was. They’d met exactly once and shared fifteen minutes alone together, in which nothing untoward occurred. Hardly the stuff of scandal.
No reason at all to stay awake nights, dreaming of that library and sweatily rewriting the events to a far more satisfying conclusion.
“You are well?” he asked Miss White politely.
“Very well, thank you,” she answered just as politely. But the dilation of her pupils indicated she, too, was remembering that private moment and the path they had not taken.
He shifted his weight. “Where are you off to now?”
Tina sent him a quelling look. His question was impertinent. Despite his higher rank, Miss White’s whereabouts were none of his business.
“The Gladwells,” she replied.
Good. The escape had worked. He smiled.
She smiled back.