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A Fine Passion
Chapter OneEarly May
Avening village, Gloucestershire
Apple blossoms in springtime.
JuliusJackWarnefleet, Baron Warnefleet of Minchinbury, reined in on the rise above Avening valley and looked down on the pink-and-white clouds surrounding Avening Manor. His first sight of his home in seven years could, he felt, have been more apt.
Apple blossom always reminded him of brides.
Regarding the blossoms with a jaundiced eye, he twitched the reins and set his gray gelding, Challenger, ambling down the long hill. Everything, it seemed, was conspiring to remind him of his failure, of the fact he hadn't found a bride. Avening Manor had been without a lady for most of his life. His mother had died when he was six years old; his father had never remarried.
Jack had spent the last thirteen years fighting for king and country, almost entirely behind enemy lines in France. His father's death seven years before had brought him briefly home, but only for two days, just long enough for the funeral and to formally place the running of Avening into the hands of old Griggs, his father's steward, before he'd had to slip back over the Channel, back to the varied roles he'd played in disrupting French shipping and commercial links, draining the lifeblood from the French state, weakening it.
Not the sort of battles most people imagined a major in the Guards engaged in.
Along with an elite group of fellow officers, he'd been seconded to work under a secretive individual known as Dalziel, who'd been responsible for all covert English operations on foreign soil. Neither Jack nor any of the sixcolleagues he'd met knew how many operatives Dalziel had commanded, or how wide the arena of their activities had been. They did know those activities had directly contributed, indeed been crucial, to the final ultimate defeat of Napoleon.
But the wars were now over. Along with his colleagues, Jack had retired from the fray and turned his mind to picking up the reins of civilian life. The previous October, he and his six colleagues, all gentlemen blessed with title, wealth, and the consequent responsibilities, and therefore all sorely in need of wives, had banded together to form the Bastion Clubtheir bulwark against the matchmakers of the ton, their castle from which each would sally forth, do battle with society's dragons, and secure the fair maid he required.
That, at least, had been their plan.Matters, however, hadn't fallen out quite as they'd supposed.
Tristan Wemyss had stumbled across his bride while overseeing the refurbishment of the house that was now the Bastion Club. Shortly after, Tony Blake had even more literally stumbled across his bride along with a dead body. Charles St. Austell, fleeing the capital and his too-helpful female relatives, had found his bride haunting his ancestral home. And now Jack was fleeing the capital, too, but not because of female relatives.
The rattle of carriage wheels reached him. Through the screening drifts, he glimpsed a black carriage bowling along the road from Cherington. The carriage crossed the junction with the Tetbury lane down which Jack was descending, and continued west toward Nailsworth.
Jack wondered who the carriage belonged to, but he'd been away so long he had no idea who might be visiting whom these days.
On returning permanently to England, he'd had to decide which of his responsibilities to attend to first. He was an only child; his father's death had set Avening in his lap with no one else to watch over it, but he knew the estate from the ground uphe'd been born and raised there, in this green valley on the northwest slope of the Cotswolds. Avening had been in sound hands; he trusted Griggs as his father had. Much more pressing had been the need to come to grips with the varied investments and far-flung properties he'd entirely unexpectedly inherited from his great-aunt Sophia.
His mother had been the daughter of an earl and his father the grandson of a duke; an eccentric spinster, Great-aunt Sophia had been a twig somewhere on his paternal family tree. Her hobby had been amassing wealth; although Jack could only recall meeting her briefly twice, on her death two years ago, Great-aunt Sophia had willed a sizable portion of her amassed wealth to him.
By the time he'd returned to England, various decisions associated with that inheritance had grown urgent; learning about his new holdings and investments had been imperative. He'd duly suppressed a deep-seated longing to return to Aveningto reassure himself it was all as he remembered, that after all his years away, after all he'd had to do, witness, and endure, his home was still there, as he remembered itand instead had devoted the last six months to coming to grips with his inheritance, welding the whole into one workable estate.
Although he now owned numerous elegant country houses, to him, Avening was still the centerpiece, the place that was home, the place that held his heart.
That was why he was there, slowly ambling down the lane, letting his jaded senses absorb the achingly familiar sights and sounds, letting them soothe his abraded temper, his less-than-contented mood, and the dull but persistent ache in his head.
Temper and mood were due to his failure to find a suitable bride. He'd accepted he should and had bitten the bullet; while in London organizing his inheritance, he'd applied himself to looking over the field. Once the Season had commenced, he'd assumed suitable ladies would be thick on the ground; wasn't that what the marriage mart was all about? Instead, he'd discovered that while sweet and not so sweet young ladies littered the pavements, parks, and ballrooms, the sort of lady he could imagine marrying had been nowhere to be found.
He would have said he was too old, and too finicky, yet he was only thirty-four, prime matrimonial age for a gentleman, and he had no physical preference in women. Short, tall, blond, or brunette were all the same to him; it was being female that countedsoft, perfumed skin, feminine curves and, once they were beneath him, those breathy little gasps falling from luscious, parted lips. He should have been easy to please.A Fine Passion. Copyright © by Stephanie Laurens. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.