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"Good evening, my lord. Your uncle has called. He's awaiting you in the library."
Gyles Frederick Rawlings, fifth Earl of Chillingworth, paused in the act of divesting himself of his greatcoat, then shrugged and let the heavy coat fall into his butler's waiting hands. "Indeed?"
"I understand Lord Walpole will shortly return to Lambourn Castle. He wondered if you had any messages for the Dowager Countess."
"In other words," Gyles murmured, resettling his cuffs, "he wants the latest gossip and knows better than to return to Mama and my aunt without it."
"As you say, my lord. In addition, Mr. Waring called earlier. On ascertaining that you were returning this evening, he left word that he would hold himself ready to wait on your lordship at your earliest convenience."
"Thank you, Irving." Gyles strolled into his front hall. Behind him, the front door quietly shut, propelled by a silent footman. Pausing in the middle of the green-and-white tiles, Gyles glanced back at Irving, waiting, a picture of patience in his butler's black. "Summon Waring." GyIes turned down the hall. "Send a footman with the carriage, given it's so late."
"Immediately, my lord."
Another well-trained footman opened the library door; Gyles walked in; the door closed behind him.
His uncle, Horace Walpole, was sitting on the chaise, legs stretched out, a half-empty brandy balloon in one hand. He cracked open one eye, then openedboth and sat up. "There you are, m'boy. I was wondering if I'd have to go back newsless, and considering what would be safe to concoct."
Gyles crossed to the tantalus. "I believe I can spare your imagination. I'm expecting Waring shortly."
"That new man-of-business of yours?"
Gyles nodded. Glass in hand, he crossed to his favorite armchair and sank into its leather-cushioned comfort. "He's been looking into a small matter for me."
"Oh? Which matter?"
"Who I should marry."
Horace stared, then straightened. "Hell's bells! You're serious."
"Marriage is not a subject on which I would jest."
"Glad to hear it." Horace took a large sip of his brandy.
"Henni said you'd be making a move in that direction, but Ireally didn't think you would -- well, not yet."
Gyles hid a wry smile. Horace had been his guardian since his father's death; he'd been seven at the time of his sire's demise, so it was Horace who'd guided him through adolesence and youth. Despite that, he could still surprise Horace. His aunt Henrietta, Henni to all, was another matter -- she seemed to know instinctively what he was thinking on all major issues, even though he was here in London while she resided at his principal estate in Berkshire. As for his mother, also at Lambourn Castle, he'd long been grateful that she kept her perceptions to herself. "It's not as if marriage is something I can avoid."
"There is that." Horace conceded. "Osbert as the next earl is not something any of us could stomach. Least of all Osbert."
"So Great-aunt Millicent regularly informs me." Gyles nodded at the large desk farther down the room. "That letter there -- the thick one? That'll be another missive demanding I do my duty by the family, pick a suitable chit, and marry with all speed. One arrives every week without fail."
Horace pulled a face.
"And, of course, every time I cross Osbert's path, he looks at me as if I'm his only possible salvation."
"Well, you are. If you don't marry and beget an heir, he'll be for it. And Osbert in charge of the earldom is entirely too depressing a thought to contemplate." Horace drained his glass. "Still, I wouldn't have thought you'd let old Millicent and Osbert jockey you into marrying to please them."
"Perish the thought. But if you must know, and I'm sure Henni will want to, I intend to marry entirely to suit myself. I'm thirty-five, after all. Further denying the inevitable will only make the adjustment more painful -- I'm set in my ways as it is." He rose and held out his hand.
Horace grimaced and gave him his glass. "Devilish business, marriage -- take my word for it. Sure it isn't all these Cynsters marrying that's niggled you into taking the plunge?"
"That's where I was today -- Somersham. There was a family gathering to show off all the new wives and infants. If I'd needed any demonstration of the validity of your thesis, today would have provided it."
Refilling their glasses, GyIes pushed aside the prickling presentiment evoked by his old friend Devil Cynster's latest infernal machination. "Devil and the others elected me an honorary Cynster." Turning from the tantalus, he handed Horace his glass, then resumed his seat. "I pointed out that while we might share countless characteristics, I'm not, and never will be, a Cynster."
He would not marry for love. That fate, as he'd assured Devil for years, would never be his.
Every Cynster male seemed unavoidably to succumb, jettisoning rakish careers of legendary proportions for love and the arms of one special lady. There'd been six in the group popularly known as the Bar Cynster, and now all were wed, all exclusively and unswervingly focused on their wives and growing families. If there was, within him, a spark of envy, he made sure it was buried deep. The price they'd paid was not one he could afford.
Horace snorted. "Love matches are the Cynsters' forte. Seem to be all the rage these days, but take my word for it -- an arranged marriage has a lot to recommend it."
"My thoughts exactly. Earlier this summer I set Waring the task of investigating all the likely candidates to see which , if any, had dower properties that would materially add to the..." All About Passion. Copyright © by Stephanie Laurens. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.