Late April, 1816.
"Dear Deverell, of course I know exactly the right lady for you." Head high, Audrey Deverell swayed back on the stool on which she was perched, narrowed her eyes at the canvas she was daubing, then delicately touched the tip of her brush to one spot. Apparently satisfied, she regained her equilibrium and looked down at the palette balanced on her arm. "I'm only surprised it's taken you so long to ask."
Seated in a well-cushioned wicker armchair beside the wide windows through which the afternoon sun washed across his aunt's "studio," Jocelyn Hubert Deverell, 7th Viscount Paignton, known to all as simply Deverell, watched Audrey select another hue to add to her creation-a landscape featuring what he thought was supposed to be a single large oak.
The last time he'd visited, a mere few months ago, this room had been devoted to basket weaving. When he'd been shown in and had discovered Audrey sitting on a high stool before a canvas on an easel, her long, thin frame swathed in a dun-colored smock with a black beret atop her brassy curls, he'd had to fight a grin, one she, who took each of her outlandish pursuits absolutely seriously, would not have appreciated.
His only paternal aunt, much younger than her three brothers of whom his father had been the eldest, Audrey was in her late forties. A determinedly confirmed spinster, she frequently pursued the outrageous. Nevertheless, being a Deverell and comfortably well-to-do, she remained an accepted member of the haut ton. Even though her more conventional friends, all long married, often displayed a certain jealousy over Audrey's flamboyant freedom, she was much sought after, if nothing else to add color and verve to said matrons' entertainments.
Audrey's audacious unconventionality had from his earliest years drawn Deverell to her; he felt infinitely closer to her than to any of his other aunts - three maternal and two by marriage. Consequently, now he quite clearly needed the sort of assistance aunts provided gentlemen such as he, it was Audrey to whom he'd turned.
He hadn't, however, expected quite such a definite answer. Caution made him hesitate, but recollection of his state made him ask, "This lady-"
"Is quite perfect in every way. She's of excellent family, attractive and lively, suffers from no affliction, physical or mental, is well-dowered, correctly and appropriately educated, and I can personally vouch for her understanding."
That last had him arching a brow. "A connection?"
Audrey flashed him a smile. "She's one of my goddaughters - I have a small platoon of them." She refocused on her painting. "Goodness knows why, but a multitude of my friends named me godparent to their off-spring. I often wondered if they thought, childless as I am, that I shouldn't be allowed to escape the nuturing role entirely."
Deverell thought that only too likely. "This lady - "
"Will make you an outstandingly perfect wife. Trust me - I've seen your predicament coming for months, so of course I've given the matter due thought. You're thirty-two, and what with the title as well as the estates you really must marry. Admittedly there's your uncles who could inherit after you, but as neither George nor Gisborne have sons of their own, that really isn't an acceptable alternative." Pausing in her daubing, Audrey shot him a severe glance. "And the last thing any of us would wish is to see the estate revert to Prinny!"
"Indeed not." The idea of the estates that, courtesy of the unexpected death of a cousin twice removed had fallen into his lap reverting on his death to the Crown, and its licentious bearer, was one Deverell viewed with intense disfavor. He might not have expected to have to care for entailed estates, but now they were his he'd be damned if he let Prinny, or whoever succeeded him, get their greedy hands on them.
Especially not now he'd visited his new holdings, the houses, farms and fields, and met those who tended them. Along with a title came responsibilities, and he'd never been one to shirk such obligations, even if unlooked-for.
He was now Viscount Paignton; as such he had to marry. "Quite aside from the matter of an heir - "
"There's the social obligations, of course." Audrey nodded sagely, her gaze still on her canvas. "Your wife must be able to manage your houses, and even more importantly manage your social life - the dinners, parties, balls and so on that as Paignton you will have to attend."
He didn't try to hide his grimace. "If she could minimize the latter - "
"Don't even think it, not until you've been married for years. Then, perhaps, you might be allowed to slink off and hide in your library. Until then, you'll have to grit your teeth and stand by her side at all necessary functions." Audrey threw him another strait glance. "Along with managing your appearances, your wife's duties will include keeping you up to the mark - ensuring you appear at all the functions you ought."
Deverell met Audrey's glance levelly, and inwardly wished his wife-to-be good luck. She'd need it. "You seem to have a very clear vision of the qualities my wife should possess."
"Well, of course dear. I've known you from birth, and despite what you think, you are very like your father-you have little time for artifice and none at all for fools. And after spending the last ten and more years being a spy in France, I imagine your prejudices have only become more fixed. Consequently the notion of you finding any degree of marital satisfaction with the general run of young ladies is utterly untenable." She arched a brow at him. "I understand you've been casting your eye over the herd."
"The "herd" appear to be henwitted flibbertigibbets with less sense than my horse."
Audrey grinned. "Quite. Well, there you are - it's clearly necessary to look elsewhere for your bride." Laying aside her palette, she reached for a rag; sitting back, she started cleaning her brush.
He frowned. "Are you saying there's some other place - some other field - in which I should have been searching? That the marriage mart isn't the place to look?"
Audrey cast him a droll look. "Really, dear, I can't believe you'd be so obtuse. The ladies who would suit you are no more enamored of the marriage mart than you. You won't find them eating stale cakes at Almack's."
He blinked. Hope welled. After a moment he asked, "This paragon you believe would be the perfect wife for me - who is she?"
Eyes on her brush, Audrey smiled. "Phoebe Malleson."
He could place neither lady nor name. "Have I met her?"
"If you can't remember her, the answer is no. But I doubt you would have crossed Phoebe's path, not if you've been doing the pretty by the matchmaking mamas and considering their latest offerings. Phoebe turned twenty-five just last week, but she's been avoiding matrimonially-inclined gatherings for years."
He had to wonder. "Twenty-five and yet unwed." He caught Audrey's eye. "Why is it you think this lady is the perfect bride for me?"
The fond feminine smile, full of patronizing solicitude, that Audrey bent on him made him feel six years old. "Really, Deverell dear, do use your head - the very reasons Phoebe is unwed are precisely the reasons that make her perfect for you."
He knew better than to quiz Audrey on the meaning of that conundrum; her answers would make his head ache. She had at least said the lady was attractive. Besides, there was clearly a more direct route to learning all he needed to know about Phoebe Malleson. "I take it Miss Malleson is not in town. Where, then, might I find her?"
"Oh, she's often in town." Audrey waved her brush. "Just not where you'd think to look. She's an only child, and her mother died years ago. Phoebe has a small army of aunts and is usually to be found with one of them, either at their houses or visiting others in their train."
Dropping her brush into a jar, Audrey swung to face him. "As it happens, I know Phoebe is presently with her aunt, Mrs. Edith Balmain, and they'll be attending a house party at Cranbrook Manor - it starts the day after tomorrow."
He kept his eyes steady on Audrey's face. "Lady Cranbrook's a friend of yours, isn't she?"
Audrey grinned. "Indeed. I'll be traveling down tomorrow." She let her gaze slide appreciatively over him, taking in his broad shoulders encased in Bath superfine, his neatly tied cravat, pristine linen, fashionable waistcoat, and his long legs, stretched out before him, defined muscles apparent beneath tight-fitting buckskin breeches tucked into glossy black Hessians. Her grin widened. "And if I tell Maria I've persuaded you to attend, she'll kiss my feet."
He grimaced. "And when will Miss Malleson be arriving?"
"Oh, Edith won't want to miss a day - and you'd be well advised to take advantage of every moment available. If you arrive in the afternoon, the day after tomorrow, then I'm sure Phoebe will be there. The party is only for four days, so you'll want to make use of every minute."
He frowned. "I will?"
"Well, of course! You surely can't imagine your campaign will be easy?"
His campaign? "How long can it take to look Miss Malleson over and decide to offer for her hand? You've already assured me she's suitable on all counts bar the personal."
Audrey sobered. She regarded him directly for a long minute, then slowly shook her head. "Dear boy, you have the matter entirely by the tail. It's not a case of Phoebe meeting with your approval, but of you meeting with hers. And that won't be readily forthcoming. It's not a question of whether she's the perfect bride for you - you may rest assured she is - but of you convincing her that you are the perfect husband for her."
Audrey smiled, fondly patronizing again. "You surely didn't think securing the perfect bride would be easy."
Reading the truth in her eyes, Deverell swallowed a groan.
* * *
He could think of ten activities he'd much rather be engaged in than setting out to persuade some difficult-to-please lady she should entrust her hand to him. Nevertheless, riven by mixed feelings, two days later he duly tooled his curricle out of town and down the newly macadamized roads into Surrey.
At least the day was fine, the breeze light, scented with grass and earthy growing things. His pair of matched grays leaned into their harness, glad to be stretching their legs beyond the confines of London's crowded streets.
He was in two minds about following Audrey's direction, yet he had asked, and she'd given her aid - her opinions and her advice. To not follow said advice might well rate as flying in the face of fate, and he'd long ago learned to bow when necessary. As his need of a bride was acute, the present situation qualified; that need was what had driven him to swallow his pride and ask for Audrey's help in the first place.
Besides, underneath it all he trusted Audrey; he had confidence in her ability to read him. Consequently he was more than a little curious to meet the paragon she'd deemed perfect for him. God knew his own reconnaissance had signally failed to uncover any lady close to that ideal.
Until Audrey had mentioned it, he hadn't considered the more than ten years he'd spent as a secret operative in Paris, throughout the latter years of the war keeping a close eye on the commercial links - the contracts, the connections - crucial to the operation of the French state, and when wise or necessary disrupting those links, to have had any material bearing on his requirements in a bride. No matter how deeply he delved into his own character, he couldn't see that those years, and all he'd done and been forced to do, had changed him, not the true him, the real him behind his polished exterior.
He was the same man he'd always been destined to be…but, on reflection, he could see that Audrey might be correct in one sense-the years had entrenched his traits. The experience had made him harder, more definite and defined, more ruthless and impatient; he'd been forced to face questions many men went most if not all their lives without facing - the sort of questions that, once answered, disallowed selfdelusion.
Consequently he knew and accepted that he wouldn't be an easy-going husband, the sort of mild-mannered gentleman fashionable ladies married and thereafter took for granted. He was demanding, and not just as a lover; if a lady was his, he would expect to be the central focus of her life. And in such matters he had very little tolerance; his temper was such that he could bend just so far, and no further.
Indeed, his temper was one aspect ladies rarely read arright. The persona he showed to the world was one of fashionably languid laissez-faire. The reality was that he was ruthless and determined, and in the main insisted and ensured that he got his own way; he might smile and charm while he did it, but the result was the same.
A comfortable gentleman he was not, nor would he ever be.
And that was the root cause behind his rejection of all the bright young things he'd had paraded before him in recent months. If a magic wand had been waved and they'd been allowed to see the real man behind his glamor, the majority would have fainted. The rest would have fled.
He wasn't the sort of man who would fit their mold, regardless of the ambitions too many of them, and even more of their mamas, fondly nursed.
Which was why from the first - the opening of the Season a month or so ago - he'd been careful. Until recently unencumbered by large estates, London had always been his favored haunt; although previously he'd known it only as a well-heeled gentleman of twenty-one, he'd learned the ton's ropes well enough. Enough to exercise all due caution. Enough to reconnoiter from the sidelines, appearing at balls at the last moment decency allowed and escaping half an hour later, as soon as he'd assessed the young ladies present.
Such guerrilla tactics, often executed in the company of Christian Allardyce, Marquess of Dearne, had caused consternation among the matchmaking ranks, but had kept everyone safe. Christian was a close comrade, one of the other six gentlemen of similar ilk - ex-secret operatives now retired from His Majesty's service, all wealthy, titled, and needing to return to the world of the ton, and thus all requiring a wife - who had the previous year banded together to form the Bastion Club, their bolthole and stronghold against the marauding mamas who prowled the ton.
All of them had been determined not to fall victim to any leg-shackling trap but rather to chose their own brides, and while he had doubts that rational choice had been quite the way matters had transpired, four of their number were now happily married. Three days ago he'd returned from Jack Warnefleet's wedding in Somerset even more set on finding his own bride.
He could admit, if only to himself, that seeing the others find their mates had increased his own restlessness, had escalated his need to find his bride - his salvation. The thought of returning to his new castle, Paignton Hall in Devon, alone, to face a summer of being hunted by every local mama with a daughter to settle, to have to attend innumerable functions and smile, chat, dance, all the while forever remaining on guard was for him a working description of hell.
During all the years he'd spent in France - every minute of every day of every month of every year - he'd been on guard. Alert, watchful, never resting. He was tired of the tension and increasingly impatient over the continuing need; although now home, he still needed to be on guard.
He'd had enough of it.
He wanted - needed - surcease. He wanted to relax, to enjoy a woman again - her company, her laughter, her body, her sighs of pleasure - without having the specter of her likely motives hanging over his head.
He wanted a wife. A lady who would happily be his, who would share his life and remove him from the ranks of the eligible.
Marriage was, for him, a necessary escape.
The regular reverberating thuds of the grays' hooves underscored his thoughts, and his determination.
The green fields of Surrey flew past. Ten minutes later, he spotted the signpost for Cranbrook Ford. Checking the grays, he turned them south; less than a mile down the lane, stone gateposts appeared, a brass plaque proclaiming them the entrance to Cranbrook Manor.
He swept through and set the grays briskly trotting. A light breeze rippled through the leafy canopies of the oaks bordering the drive. The manor appeared ahead, a low, wide house in gray stone, its façade whimsically crenellated.
"Be that where we're going then?"
Deverell glanced around at Grainger, his groom-cum-tiger. "Yes." Deverell faced forward. He'd known Grainger, a lanky, goodhearted lad with a quick laugh, about nineteen years old, for less than a year. He'd discovered him on his first visit to Paignton; a natural with horses, Grainger had nevertheless been something of an outcast-a lowly orphan with no known family tolerated because of his unusual skill. Deverell had changed that; he'd made Grainger his groom, taking him out of the routine of the larger stables and giving him his prize cattle to tend.
When it came to horses he had complete faith in Grainger. In other spheres….
"While we're here, you'll behave as if you were at Paignton Hall, under Mallard and Mrs. Mottram's thumbs. Mind what everyone says and do nothing untoward."
He felt Grainger's gaze.
"Be n't I to help you then? Ain't there nothing I'm supposed to do - beyond the grays, I mean?"
Deverell was about to disavow any need, but recollection of Audrey's words had him temporizing. "There may be something I need you for later, but the first thing you must do is be quiet and friendly, helpful and undisruptive with all the other staff. Keep your eyes and ears open so that when I need information, you'll know who to ask - or more rightly who to encourage to talk to you." He glanced at Grainger. "Do you understand?"
The light in Grainger's eyes assured him that horses weren't his groom's only interest. "Oh, aye - I can do that."
Looking forward, hiding his grin - his understanding that Grainger was now fantasizing about the maids he might meet and how to encourage them to talk to him - Deverell steered the curricle onto the gravel forecourt before the manor's wide stone steps.
A groom came running; Grainger greeted him jovially.
Halting the horses and handing over the reins, Deverell stepped down and started up the steps. Before he reached the porch, the door swung wide; a large and stately butler waited to bow him in.
He was shown into the drawing room, a long room with French doors along one side, presently open to the terrace and the manicured lawns beyond. As Audrey had prophesized, Maria, Lady Cranbrook, was delighted - no, aux anges - to welcome him to her home, without a blink informing him that his presence would assuredly cause a considerable stir among her female guests.
In the face of her enthusiasm he smiled charmingly, and cast a sharp glance at Audrey; seated beside her ladyship, his aunt merely smiled back, fondly smug, and nodded her encouragement when Lady Cranbrook directed him to the lawn on which the bulk of her guests were strolling.
Stepping out onto the terrace, he cast a quick, searching look around-and very nearly stepped back. There was a small army of young ladies present and he'd omitted to ask for a description of Audrey's paragon.
But most of the guests, both ladies and gentlemen, had noticed him; to retreat would make him appear ludicrously high in the instep, as if he thought himself above their company.
"Besides," he muttered to himself as, nonchalant smile in place, he stepped down to the lawn, "how hard can it be to identify one female and run her to earth?"
Fatal words. By the time he'd done the rounds, been introduced and spoken politely with every female, both young and old, gracing the wide lawn and drifting beneath the trees, and discovered Miss Phoebe Malleson was simply not there, his patience - always limited - had worn distinctly thin. Spying Audrey descending from the terrace, he excused himself from the matron who along with her two daughters had corraled him, and strolled to intercept his aunt.
One look into his eyes and Audrey's lips twitched.
His own lips thinning, he hung on to his temper. "Your paragon is playing least in sight."
"Well of course she is, dear - I did warn you." Audrey patted his arm, leaned closer and murmured, "Now she's twenty-five, she's determined to go her own way and waste no more time even pretending an interest in gentlemen and marriage. So she's here at the house, but elsewhere."
He frowned. "If she has no interest in gentlemen and marriage, why am I here?"
"To teach her the error of her ways, of course." Taking his arm, Audrey drew him around. "Have you met Edith Balmain, Phoebe's aunt?"
"Yes." He glanced to where the sprightly, white-haired widow sat, bright blue eyes drinking everything in, interested and alert. At first glance she appeared the epitome of a little old lady, tiny, slightly stooped, with a soft lined face and a retiring manner, but once he'd met those eyes he'd reassigned her to quite a different category. She was an astute observer-one who saw, detected and consequently knew everything, including all those private matters people thought they'd concealed.
Even without the connection to his paragon he would have been drawn to, and interested in learning more of, Edith Balmain. However… "She didn't know where her niece might be skulking, either."
"Well, Deverell dear, if there's one gentleman in all this gathering with the right skills to hunt Phoebe down, it's you." Audrey caught his eye, smugly smiled. "And when you do I'm sure your persuasive talents will be up to the challenge of making her rethink her rejection of matrimony."
He let his frown deepen. "One point continues to elude me - why do you think she's so unquestionably the right lady for me?"
Audrey's smile took on an edge - one of understanding and determination. "You'll have your answer when you find her."
He wasn't going to get any more from her; with a sigh he let her hear, he bowed over her hand and headed for the house.
* * *
In one respect, Audrey was right - tracking down people was one of his fortes. By dint of asking the butler, Stripes, he learned first that Miss Malleson had not called for a carriage or a horse, and was consequently somewhere in the house or within walking distance of it, but was not in her chamber, and, secondly, where all the places a lady might seek solitude were located.
He ranked those places in order of the most likely - the conservatory, the orangery, the shrubbery, the maze, the chapel, the billiard room, and the library - and set out on his search.
When he opened the paneled door of the library, stepped silently inside and instantly, instinctively, knew she was there, he realized that when dealing with Phoebe Malleson he was going to have to adjust his thinking.
She wasn't the average young lady.
He couldn't see her from where he stood but instincts honed through years of constant danger informed him he wasn't the sole human in the room. That, indeed, there was a female in the room.
Closing the door silently, he walked forward, smoothly, barely disturbing the air. And saw her.
Head and shoulders comfortably supported by a large fringed cushion, Phoebe Malleson - he had no doubt it was she - lay reclining on a chaise angled away from a long window. The light streamed in, striking garnet glints from her neatly coiled coronet of dark red hair before falling on the pages of the book she was engrossed in.
So engrossed she hadn't yet noticed him; he seized the moment to take stock.
She was, he estimated, eyeing the length of leg demurely concealed beneath filmy pale blue skirts, a trifle taller than the average. Her figure was slender, yet as far as he could judge given her pose, her hips were nicely rounded. Her breasts were, too, not large yet promising a firm handful. Her throat was long, her skin pale and fine. Her jaw…
Even in respose, her jaw suggested determination.
Indeed, all her features-broad brow, straight nose, wide eyes - he couldn't tell their color - set beneath finely arched dark brows and framed by lush lashes, and her fractionally too large mouth with its full red lips - all neatly set in the pale oval of her face, held a hint of the dramatic. The whole projected a sense of aliveness, of vitality and purpose - attributes he'd failed to discern in other young ladies.
Audrey had been right. Just setting eyes on Phoebe Malleson awoke a compelling curiosity - a wish to know more, to learn what made such an unusual lady tick.
A plate of fruits sat on a low table before the chaise; it had clearly been sampled at length. As he watched, her eyes never leaving the page, Phoebe Malleson extended one slender arm, searched, located a bunch of grapes, deftly plucked one, then carried it to her mouth, hesitated while she finished a section, then slowly eased the plump grape between her luscious lips.
Deverell watched it slide into her mouth.
Inwardly grimacing, he shifted his weight.
She looked up.
Phoebe Mary Malleson glanced across the room, and quite unexpectedly found herself gazing at a nattily striped waistcoat. She blinked, then lifted her gaze…slowly.
The man - gentleman - was tall. And large.
How had he got so close?
He had the most gorgeous green eyes she'd ever seen.
Fascinating green eyes…and a direct gaze that was, even more to her surprise, frankly disconcerting. She wanted to look away, to break the contact, yet some part of her didn't dare…
Who the devil was he?
More to the point, her inner self whispered, what was he?
A peculiar little shiver slithered down her spine. She continued to stare, mesmerized, hypnotized-caught, trapped, within his green gaze. Alarmed, and not a little disgusted at such ridiculous and newfound susceptibility, she forced herself to blink, and succeeded in wrenching her eyes from his.
Lying all but supine in the presence of a dangerous man wasn't wise; clearing her throat, she swung her legs over the side of the chaise and sat up.
She quickly swallowed her grape. "Good afternoon." Her voice, at least, was her own, firm and even. Reassuringly steady. "I don't believe we've met."
Her last sentence carried commendable hauteur - polite but coolly distant. A trifle censorious. Encouraged, she risked lifting her eyes to his again, only to find the mesmerizing green screened by long dark lashes. She should have been relieved, only she could feel his gaze still on her, still watchful, assessing, in a distinctly predatory way.
He was indeed tall, and large, but his broad shoulders and chest were entirely in proportion with the long, lean lines of his legs. Her brain registered his fashionable, quietly elegant attire - expensive and select - and the aura of leashed power that hung about him even as her gaze, without conscious direction, rapidly scanned his face.
Clean, well-defined angles and planes, his features stamped him as one of her kind, her class, but there was a hardness there she didn't miss or mistake, a strength in his well-shaped nose and squared chin, and a certain cynicism in the set of his mobile lips.
As her gaze settled on those lips, they lightly curved.
"I fear I have the advantage of you, Miss Malleson." His lids rose; startled, she met his gaze again. "I'm Deverell."
The amusement she glimpsed in his distracting eyes was more than enough to prick her temper. She frowned lightly, shifting her gaze from him. "Deverell…." She tapped one fingernail on her book, then quickly looked back at him as he came forward. "You must be Audrey's nephew."
He drew near and offered his hand. She glanced at it, sorely tempted to remain seated, but having him towering over her wasn't worth the minor victory. Surrendering her hand, she rose.
Clasping her fingers firmly, he assisted her to her feet, then bowed, the action smooth and graceful. "Indeed. I'm Paignton."
She bobbed the obligatory curtsy; far too conscious of his largeness, the strangely overwhelming - strangely impressive - wall of masculinity a mere foot away, she refused to again meet his eyes. "Ah, yes - I heard that you had come into the title."
Why was he there disrupting her peace? Intending to dismiss him, she glanced pointedly at the shelves. "Were you after a book?"
He hadn't let go of her hand. Forced to it, steeling herself, she lifted her gaze and met his eyes. Now much closer, more alluring, even more mesmerising.
She was staring again.
Into the fascinating emerald depths.
At the edge of her vision, the curve of his lips deepened.
"I came for you."
It took a moment or three for his words to reach her brain. Even when they did, they made no sense-not when matched with the tenor of his voice. Deep, reverberating, it seemed to suggest…a meaning far more primitive than could possibly be the case.
With an effort, Phoebe harried her brain into action. "Is my aunt asking after me?"
His brows, dark, slightly winged, rose. "Not that I know of."
She blinked, and glanced through the French doors at the lawns beyond. "I take it it's time for tea?" She eased her fingers from his firm grip.
Allowing her digits to slide from his clasp, he glanced over her head at the clock on the mantelpiece beyond the chaise. "Soon, I daresay."
Phoebe suppressed a frown. If he hadn't come searching for her because of her aunt, or to summon her for afternoon tea….
Sudden suspicion bloomed. Narrowing her eyes, she fixed them on his. "Why did you come looking for me?"
His light smile was charming; behind it, she sensed, he thought quickly.
"Audrey suggested I do so."
She frowned, hard, at him. "Audrey?" She hoped she conveyed her disbelief that he was so malleable his aunt could direct him.
His lips quirked. "Indeed."
"I gather she believed I would benefit from making your acquaintance."
She raised her brows haughtily. "And have you?"
His smile deepened, genuine, warm-and subtly teasing. "Time will no doubt tell."
Her instincts flickered. She held his gaze while thoughts milled in her head. Recollections of what she'd heard of him - little by way of specifics, nothing that had prepared her for the impact of his physical presence - yet of his station speculation had been rife. He was wealthy, titled-and undeniably required a wife.
His aunt Audrey was her godmother, and a close friend of her aunt; it didn't require much mental effort to discern why he'd been pointed in her direction. Yet despite her aunt's and her godmother's fond hopes, she wasn't interested in filling the position he had vacant.
She refocused on his eyes, and noted the intensity, the acuity behind his green gaze. How best to get rid of him? Tell him plainly to go away? In her experience such tactics rarely worked, especially not with men like him. He would either not believe she was serious, or worse, decide to interpret her refusal as a challenge.
No. In their current location there was a much more effective way of dealing with him.
"Perhaps," she said, very conscious of his nearness and more, of his attention being completely focused on her, "we should join the others for afternoon tea?"
His lids flickered, then he searched her eyes. A moment passed, then he inclined his head. "If you wish."
Before he could offer his arm, and leave her compelled to take it-and thus be far closer to him than she needed to be-she flashed him a smile and turned to the French doors. "We can go this way."
With determined brightness, she led the way outside.