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Jack Hamilton glared across his bedchamber at the retreating back of his doctor. He'd always considered shooting the messenger to be an irrational and sadly ill-bred response to unwelcome news. Right now he could definitely see the attraction it held for some.
A month! A whole damn month! By that time the hunting season would be nearly over. And what was he supposed to do with himself in the meantime? Play shove ha'penny? When he was situated within easy distance of the Quorn, the Belvoir and the Pytchely?
He caught the commiserating look on his valet Fincham's face and uttered a malevolent curse under his breath, directed at his own unforgivable cow-handedness in letting Firebird come down in the first place. Marc would roast him finely when he heard. For a moment he considered not informing Marc of his accident, only to dismiss the idea. The last thing the Earl of Rutherford would want to do would be to come all the way to Leicestershire in the depths of winter to discover that his host couldn't go hunting.
Jack comforted himself with the thought that if he wrote, Marc's ribbing would, perforce, be on paper. He didn't have to read it if he didn't want to.
He reached for his brandy glass without thinking and swore loudly. Wrong arm.
"Er, Mr Hamilton..."
Jack looked up. The doctor stood by the open door, a rueful smile upon his face. "It might be an idea to wear a sling until that collarbone knits..."
"A sling?" Jack could scarcely believe his ears. "What the hell do you mean, a sling?"
Wilberforce answered readily, "Piece of cloth to support your arm — it goes around your neck and ties —"
"I know what a sling is, damn it!" growled Jack. "What the deuce do you think I need with one? I'm not a child!"
"No, sir. Of course not."
The doctor's placatory tone failed to convince Jack and he resolutely ignored Fincham's snort of laughter. At least he had the decency to pretend to be coughing.
"Tis just that I have observed that gentlemen such as yourself — er, active gentlemen, that is — have a tendency to forget their injury and use the arm. A sling would serve to remind you to rest the arm."
Jack snorted. "I'll be reminded of that every time I see my hunters eating their heads off, thanks very much!"
"Very well, sir." A faint grin crossed the doctor's face. "Sorry to have been of service, sir."
"Sorry to have...oh!" An unwilling chuckle broke from Jack. "I take you. Sorry, Wilberforce. It's my own stupid fault. Thank you, and pray give my regards to your wife. I understand you're expecting a happy event."
The recently married doctor grinned. "That's right, sir. I'd best be getting back. Alice said she'd wait supper. I wish to God she wouldn't — no saying when I'll get home some nights, but she likes to do it! Good night. And cheer up — at least it wasn't your neck!"
The expression of disbelief on Mr Hamilton's face and the disgusted snort that accompanied it suggested that, in his opinion, he might as well have broken his neck.
With a friendly wave, and thoroughly unsympathetic smile, the doctor departed.
Jack reached for the brandy, carefully this time, and took a sip. It might serve to sweeten his temper.
His head ached. His shoulder ached and he felt thoroughly dissatisfied with life. With a disgusted mutter at his melancholy mood he got to his feet, cursing as his broken collarbone, and recently relocated shoulder, protested the unwary movement.
"Will you be going to bed now, Mr Jack?" asked Fincham, gathering up Jack's riding coat and discarded shirt.
Jack stared at him. "Bed? At this hour? Didn't you hear the doctor? I broke my collarbone, not my blasted neck, Fincham!" He picked up the coat Fincham had laid out for him.
This time Fincham grinned openly. "No, sir. Be putting you to bed with a shovel if you'd done that. Here, I'll help you with that!" He came over and, ignoring Jack's protest, assisted him into the coat.
It was a good thing, thought Jack, that he disliked tight coats and preferred to be able to shrug himself in without assistance. As it was, he suppressed a curse at the jolt of pain.
"Thanks," said Jack. "I'll get out of your way and go down to the library."
He'd better write that letter to Marc. No doubt he and Meg would be just as happy to remain at Alston Court and dote on their two-month-old son. Probably they'd just accepted his invitation at the christening because they felt sorry for him.
Gathering up his brandy, he left the room. His mood did not improve on the way to the library. Poor old Jack. All alone up there in Leicestershire. That sort of thing.
Oh, for God's sake! What the devil was the matter with him? He must have taken more of a bump on the head than he'd realised. Of course Marc and Meg weren't visiting out of pity. They'd accepted because they were friends. He had no closer friend than Marcus Langley, Earl of Rutherford. Not even Marc's marriage had interfered with their friendship.
He sat down at his very untidy desk and reached awkwardly for a pen and paper. He muttered a few imprecations as he realised the quill needed trimming and reached for the pen cutter.
Dear Marc, No doubt you will find this highly amusing but I feel I ought to warn you...
He finished the letter and folded it. Lucky Marc. A wife like Meg and now a son. He couldn't imagine how life could possibly hold more for a man — except, of course, for all the other sons and daughters the pair of them were looking forward to.
He shivered slightly and glanced frowning at the fire. For some peculiar reason his library, which he had always found a companionable sort of room, seemed cold and empty.
He'd noticed that ever since he returned from the christening of Marc's heir — his godson. He'd been conscious of the quiet. Even after the other visitors had left Alston Court, Marc's principal residence, he'd been aware of a sense of life, a hum of purpose, about the place. The way it had been when he'd stayed there as a boy.
It was as though Marc's marriage and the birth of his first child had brought the place back to full life.
Not even a broken collarbone and dislocated shoulder during the hunting season would bother Marc now. Jack grinned. He could only think of one aspect of a broken collarbone that would seriously discompose Marc. And he was fairly sure the inventive Earl of Rutherford would come up with a solution to that as well.
Disgustedly Jack faced the true cause of his recent irritability — he needed a wife. Which was all very well — he had known that for some years. Increasingly his various affairs had left him dissatisfied and restless. He wanted more than a discreet liaison with someone else's neglected and bored wife or a fashionable demi-rep. He wanted someone who was his, and his only. But finding the right female was far easier said than done.
For the last four Seasons he'd been actively, if surreptitiously, looking. He could do without every ambitious mama in Town thrusting darling little nitwits into his arms. He could certainly do without Sally Jersey introducing him to every heiress in sight.
He wanted a love match, not a marriage of convenience for an heir on his side and social advancement on hers. So he'd looked very carefully. So damn carefully that not even the girls he'd considered, nor their mamas for that matter, had realised his interest. And on each occasion the girl in question accepted some other fellow before he'd even got as far as becoming particular in his attentions. Which didn't really worry him — except for the inconvenience of having to select a new target.
All of which suggested that he hadn't cared in the least about any of them, which surprised him. They had, all of them, been nice, quiet, gentle, scholarly girls — bluestockings, even, who wouldn't have bothered him in the least. So why hadn't he felt the least flicker of interest in any of them?
Logically, all of those young ladies should have been perfect. Except for the unavoidable fact that he had thought them all a trifle dull, boring even. And he couldn't, not with the most vigorous stretch of his very fertile imagination, picture himself in bed with any of them.
He sipped at his brandy thoughtfully. Of course, desire and passion were not necessarily the best guides when choosing a bride. They had a tendency to ambush a man at his weakest point, sapping his self-control, rendering common-sense useless. There were safer ways to choose a wife.
It didn't really make sense. None of those girls should have been dull. They were all attractive, charming young ladies. They had all been interested in the same sorts of things he enjoyed. And they had generally agreed with him...
It would be nice to have a wife to come home to. Someone to talk to in the evenings instead of turning to his books. Someone to warm his bed — and his heart. A nice, sweet, companionable girl who would soothe his irritable temper when he broke his collarbone. Someone who wouldn't turn his ordered life upside down. Someone like Meg.
He grimaced. What the devil was he doing, languishing over his best friend's wife? But he had to admit, if Meg had not been well and truly married to Marc before he laid eyes on her, he probably would have courted her. She was just what he liked in a woman. Gentle, charming, unswervingly loyal. Easy to get on with. Elegant loveliness and dignity personified. She was tall, too. Smaller women always seemed to be daunted by his height. Meg didn't always agree with him, of course...in fact, she had even been known to disagree with Marc. Strongly.
He dismissed the thought. Marc could be a trifle unreasonable at times. Especially where Meg's safety or health was concerned. He grinned. Marc had been taken thoroughly by surprise in his marriage. He was far more rational in his approach to love. You worked out in advance what you liked in a woman and then looked for her. In a rational, logical way.
It hasn't worked yet, has it?
He frowned. The last thing you did was to permit the responses of your body to serve as a guide. Passion and lust were all very well, but he wanted a woman to respect and care for, not just take to bed. Passion and lust could lead a man badly astray in fixing his affections. Capricious guides at best, they were damned deceiving at worst.
He snorted as he picked up a book. He'd learnt that lesson early. Only a fool repeated his own mistakes. Besides, he was older now, more experienced and he was in full control of his responses and desires, as a man should be. So. There it was. He needed a young lady like Meg. Easy. Except the only girl like Meg was Meg and she was not only married to, but shatteringly in love with, his best friend.
The right girl must be out there somewhere, and this year, when he went to London for the Season, he was going to make an all-out effort to find her. Because it was in the highest degree unlikely that she would come seeking him out up here in the wilds of Leicestershire.
Two mornings later Jack stalked through the wintry wilderness of his garden on his way back from a walk in the woods behind the house. The stark lines of the bare trees, dusted with a light fall of snow, failed to please him. They looked contorted, dead. The whole world appeared unspeakably bleak and dreary.
Even the rambling seventeenth-century house looked uninviting. It even managed to look empty. Which was completely and utterly ridiculous. It had a full complement of staff, all of them hell-bent on cosseting him to death.
He'd had a shocking night, and getting out of bed had been worse. Never before had he realised just how inconvenient a broken collarbone could be, not to mention the residual ache from the dislocated shoulder. Every muscle in his upper body appeared to be connected to his shoulder, reminding him with every step that his hunters were enjoying an unforeseen holiday.
At least he'd managed to escape from the servants, along with their everlasting hot possets, cushions and commiserating looks, to get a breath of air. He hadn't counted on this blasted north wind, which sent spasms of pain through his shoulder and neck every few minutes. He'd have to try and sneak into the library without anyone catching him.
And he was definitely sick of all the callers. His neigh-bours had developed an appalling lack of tact. He really didn't need to hear all about the capital run the local pack had enjoyed two days ago. And he definitely didn't need to have his incapacitated shoulder treated as a sort of matrimonial godsend. He ground his teeth. If just so much as one more simpering chit was inspired to present him with her own...special salve for injuries just such as yours, Mr Hamilton! Well, he wouldn't be responsible for the consequences, that was all.
At least he'd told Evans to deny him to any further callers for a few days. It would be very hard to explain precisely why he'd stuffed a pot of salve down a young lady's bodice. With this in mind, he swung around a garden wall and crashed into the person coming the other way.
A thoroughly blasphemous and graphic exclamation escaped his lips even as his reeling body automatically registered the undoubted femininity of his assailant.
"Blast it, girl!" he went on, toning his language down slightly. "Don't you ever look where you're going?" He probed cautiously at his shoulder. It felt as though everything was still there. Unfortunately. It certainly all ached in the right places. And, as he got a good look at his blushing assailant, a few of the wrong places made their presence felt, too. Good Lord! He was an experienced man of six and thirty — not a green youth of twenty to rise to the bait like a trout!