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The Taste of Innocence
By Stephanie Laurens
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Stephanie Laurens
All right reserved.
Northwest of Combe Florey, Somerset
He had to marry, so he would.
But on his terms.
The latter words resonated through Charlie Morwellan's mind, repeating to the thud of his horse's hooves as he cantered steadily north. The winter air was crisp and clear. About him the lush green foothills of the western face of the Quantocks rippled and rolled. He'd been born to this country, at Morwellan Park, his home, now a mile behind him, yet he paid the arcadian views scant heed, his mind relentlessly focused on other vistas.
He was lord and master of the fields about him, filling the valley between the Quantocks to the east and the western end of the Brendon Hills. His lands stretched south well beyond the Park itself to where they abutted those managed by his brother-in-law, Gabriel Cynster. The northern boundary lay ahead, following a rise; as his dappled gray gelding, Storm, crested it, Charlie drew rein and paused, looking ahead yet not really seeing.
Cold air caressed his cheeks. Jaw set, expression impassive, he let the reasons behind his present direction run through his mind—one last time.
He'd inherited the earldom of Meredith on his father's death three yearspreviously. Both before and since, he'd ducked and dodged the inevitable attempts to trap him into matrimony. Although the prospect of a wealthy, now over thirty-year-old, as-yet-unwed earl kept the matchmakers perennially salivating, after a decade in the ton he was awake to all their tricks; time and again he slipped free of their nets, taking a cynical male delight in so doing.
Yet for Lord Charles Morwellan, eighth Earl of Meredith, matrimony itself was inescapable.
That, however, wasn't the spur that had finally pricked him into action. Nearly two years ago his closest friends, Gerrard Debbington and Dillon Caxton, had both married. Neither had been looking for a wife, neither had needed to marry, yet fate had set her snares and each had happily walked to the altar; he'd stood beside them there and known they'd been right to seize the moment.
Both Gerrard and Dillon were now fathers.
Storm shifted, restless; absentmindedly Charlie patted his neck.
Connected via their links to the powerful Cynster clan, he, Gerrard, and Dillon, and their wives, Jacqueline and Priscilla, had met as they always did after Christmas at Somersham Place, principal residence of the Dukes of St. Ives and ancestral home of the Cynsters. The large family and its multifarious connections met biannually there, at the so-called Summer Celebration in August and again over the festive season, the connections joining the family after spending Christmas itself with their own families.
He'd always enjoyed the boisterous warmth of those gatherings, yet this time . . . it hadn't been Gerrard's and Dillon's children per se that had fed his restlessness but rather what they represented. Of the three of them, friends for over a decade, he was the one with a recognized duty to wed and produce an heir. While theoretically he could leave his brother Jeremy, now twenty-three, to father the next generation of Morwellans, when it came to family duty he'd long ago accepted that he was constitutionally incapable of ducking. Letting one of the major responsibilities attached to the position of earl devolve onto Jeremy's shoulders was not something his conscience or his nature, his sense of self, would allow.
Which was why he was heading for Conningham Manor.
Continuing to tempt fate, courting the risk of that dangerous deity stepping in and organizing his life, and his wife, for him, as she had with Gerrard and Dillon, would be beyond foolish; ergo it was time for him to choose his bride. Now, before the start of the coming season, so he could exercise his prerogative, choose the lady who would suit him best, and have the deed done, final and complete, before society even got wind of it.
Before fate had any further chance to throw love across his path.
He needed to act now to retain complete and absolute control over his own destiny, something he considered a necessity, not an option.
Storm pranced, infected with Charlie's underlying impatience. Subduing the powerful gelding, Charlie focused on the landscape ahead. A mile away, comfortably nestled in a dip, the slate roofs of Conningham Manor rose above the naked branches of its orchard. Weak morning sunlight glinted off diamond-paned windows; a chill breeze caught the smoke drifting from the tall Elizabethan chimney pots and whisked it away. There'd been Conninghams at the Manor for nearly as long as there'd been Morwellans at the Park.
Charlie stared at the Manor for a minute more, then stirred, eased Storm's reins, and cantered down the rise.
"Regardless, Sarah, Clary and I firmly believe that you have to marry first."
Seated facing the bow window in the back parlor of Conningham Manor, the undisputed domain of the daughters of the house, Sarah Conningham glanced at her sixteen-year-old sister Gloria, who stared pugnaciously at her from her perch on the window seat.
"Before us." The clarification came in determined tones from seventeen-year-old Clara—Clary—seated beside Gloria and likewise focused on Sarah and their relentless pursuit to urge her into matrimony.
Stifling a sigh, Sarah looked down at the ribbon trim she was unpicking from the neckline of her new spencer, and with unimpaired calm set about reiterating her well-trod arguments. "You know that's not true. I've told you so, Twitters has told you so, and Mama has told you so. Whether I marry or not will have no effect whatever on your come-outs." Freeing the last stitch, she tugged the ribbon away, then shook out the spencer. "Clary will have her first season next year, and you, Gloria, will follow the year after."
"Yes but, that's not the point." Clary fixed Sarah with a frown. "It's the . . . the way of things."
When Sarah cocked a questioning brow at her, Clary blushed and rushed on, "It's the unfulfilled expectations. Mama and Papa will be taking you to London in a few weeks for your fourth season. It's obvious they still hope you'll attract the notice of a suitable gentleman. Both Maria and Angela accepted offers in their second season, after all."
Excerpted from The Taste of Innocence by Stephanie Laurens Copyright © 2007 by Stephanie Laurens. Excerpted by permission.
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