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A Lady Of Expectations
By Stephanie Laurens
MIRACopyright © 2005 Stephanie Laurens
All right reserved.
"LADY ASFORDBY, OF ASFORDBY GRANGE, requests the pleasure of the company of Mr. Jack Lester, of Rawling's Cottage, and guests, at a ball."
Ensconced in an armchair by the fireplace, a glass of brandy in one long-fingered hand, the white card of Lady Asfordby's invitation in the other, Jack Lester made the pronouncement with ill-disguised gloom.
"She's the grand dame of these parts, ain't she?" Lord Percy Almsworthy was the second of the three gentlemen taking their ease in the parlour of Jack's hunting box. Outside, the wind howled about the eaves and tugged at the shutters. All three had ridden to hounds that day, taking the field with the Quorn. But while both Jack and his brother Harry, presently sprawled on the chaise, were clipping riders, up with the best of them, Percy had long ago taken Brummel's lead, indefatigable in turning out precise to a pin but rarely venturing beyond the first field. Which explained why he was now idly pacing the room, restless, while the brothers lounged, pleasantly exhausted, with the look about them of men not willing to stir. Pausing by the fireplace, Percy looked down on his host. "Lend a bit of colour to your stay, what? Besides," he added, turning to amble once more, "You never know -- might see a golden head that takes your eye."
"In this backwater?" Jack snorted. "If I couldn't find any golden head worth the attention last Season -- nor during the Little Season -- I don't give much for my chances here."
"Oh, I don't know." Unconsciously elegant, Harry Lester lounged on the chaise, one broad shoulder propped against a cushion, his thick golden locks rakishly dishevelled. His sharply intelligent green eyes wickedly quizzed his elder brother. "You seem remarkably set on this start of yours. As finding a wife has become so important to you, I should think it behoves you to turn every stone. Who knows which one hides a gem?"
Blue eyes met green. Jack grunted and looked down. Absent-mindedly, he studied the gilt-edged card. Firelight glinted over the smooth waves of his dark hair and shadowed his lean cheeks. His brow furrowed.
He had to marry. He had inwardly acknowledged that fact more than twenty months ago, even before his sister, Lenore, had married the Duke of Eversleigh, leaving the burden of the family squarely on his shoulders.
"Perseverance -- that's what you need." Percy nodded to no one in particular. "Can't let another Season go by without making your choice -- waste your life away if you're too finicky."
"I hate to say it, old son," Harry said. "But Percy's right. You can't seriously go for years looking over the field, turning your nose up at all the offerings." Taking a sip of his brandy, he eyed his brother over the rim of his glass. His green eyes lit with an unholy gleam. "Not," he added, his voice soft,
"unless you allow your good fortune to become known."
"Heaven forbid!" Eyes narrowing, Jack turned to Harry.
"And just in case you have any ideas along that track, perhaps I should remind you that it's our good fortune -- yours and mine and Gerald's, too?" Features relaxing, Jack sank back in his chair, a smile erasing the severe line of his lips. "In-deed, the chance of seeing you playing catch-me-who-can with all the enamoured damsels is sorely tempting, brother mine."
Harry grinned and raised his glass. "Fear not -- that thought has already occurred. If the ton stumbles onto our secret, it won't be through me. And I'll make a point of dropping a quiet word in our baby brother's ear, what's more. Neither you nor I need him queering our pitch."
"Too true." Jack shuddered artistically. "The prospect does not bear thinking of."
Percy was frowning. "I can't see it. Why not let it out that you're all as rich as bedammed? God knows, you Lesters have been regarded as nothing more than barely well-to-do for generations. Now that's changed, why not reap the rewards?" His guileless expression was matched by his next words. "The debs would be yours for the asking -- you could take your pick."
Both Lester men bent looks of transparent sympathy upon their hapless friend.
Bewildered, Percy blinked and patiently waited to be set aright.
Unable to hold a candle to his long-time companions in the matter of manly attributes, he had long since become reconciled to his much slighter figure, his sloping shoulders and spindly shanks. More than reconciled -- he had found his vocation as a Pink of the Ton. Dressing to disguise his shortcomings and polishing his address to overcome his innate shyness had led to yet another discovery; his newfound status spared him from the trial of chasing women. Both Jack and Harry thrived on the sport, but Percy's inclinations were of a less robust nature. He adored the ladies -- from a distance. In his estimation, his present style of life was infinitely preferable to the racy existence enjoyed by his companions.
However, as both Jack and Harry were well aware, his present lifestyle left him woefully adrift when it came to matters of strategy in handling the female of the species, particularly those dragons who menaced all rakes -- the matrons of the ton.
And, naturally, with his mild manners and retiring ways, he was hardly the sort of gentleman who inhabited the debutantes' dreams. All the Lester men -- Jack, at thirty-six, with his dark good looks and powerful athlete's physique, and Harry, younger by two years, his lithe figure forever graceful and ineffably elegant -- and even twenty-four-year-old Gerald, with his boyish charm -- were definitely the stuff of which females' dreams were made.
"Actually, Percy, old man," Harry said. "I rather suspect Jack thinks he can have his pick regardless."
Jack shot a supercilious glance at his sibling. "As a matter of fact, I've not previously considered the point."
Harry's lips lifted; gracefully, he inclined his head. "I have infinite confidence, oh brother mine, that if and when you find your particular golden head, you won't need the aid of our disgusting wealth in persuading her to your cause."
"Yes -- but why the secrecy?" Percy demanded.
"Because," Jack explained, "while the matrons have considered my fortune, as you so succinctly put it, as barely well-to-do, they've been content to let me stroll among their gilded flowers, letting me look my fill without undue interference."
With three profligate sons in the family and an income little more than a competence, it was commonly understood that the scions of Lester Hall would require wealthy brides. However, given the family connections and the fact that Jack, as eldest, would inherit the Hall and principal estates, no one had been surprised when, once he had let it be known he was seriously contemplating matrimony, the invitations had rolled in.
"Naturally," Harry suavely put in. "With all Jack's years of...worldly experience, no one expects him to fall victim to any simple snares and, given the lack of a Lester fortune, there's insufficient incentive for the dragons to waste effort mounting any of their more convoluted schemes."
"So I've been free to view the field." Jack took back the conversational reins. "However, should any whiff of our changed circumstances begin circulating through the ton, my life of unfettered ease will be over. The harpies will descend with a vengeance."
"Nothing they like better than the fall of a rake," Harry confided to Percy. "Brings out their best efforts -- never more hell-ishly inventive than when they've a rich rake with a declared interest in matrimony firmly in their sights. They relish the prospect of the hunter being the hunted."
Jack threw him a quelling glance. "Sufficient to say that my life will no longer be at all comfortable. I won't be able to set foot outside my door without guarding against the unimaginable. Debs at every turn, hanging on a fellow's arm, forever batting their silly lashes. It's easy to put one off women for life."
Excerpted from A Lady Of Expectations by Stephanie Laurens Copyright © 2005 by Stephanie Laurens. Excerpted by permission.
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