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"Thirty-Four, my dear Hugo, is a decidedly sobering age."
"Hen?" Startled from somnolence, Hugo Satterly opened one cautious eye and studied the long-limbed figure gracefully lounging on the opposite carriage seat. "Why's that?"
Philip Augustus Marlowe, seventh Baron Ruthven, did not deign to answernot directly. Instead, his gaze on the summer scenery slipping past the carriage window, he remarked, "I would never have thought to see Jack and Harry Lester competing over who would provide the first of the next generation of Lesters."
Hugo straightened. "Tricky prediction, that. Jack suggested laying odds but Lucinda heard of it." Hugo grimaced. "That was the end of it, of course. Said she wasn't about to have us all watching her and Sophie, counting the days. Pity."
A fleeting smile touched Philip's lips. "An uncommonly sensible woman, Lucinda." After a moment he added, more to himself than to his friend, "And Jack was lucky with his Sophie, too."
They were returning from a week's house party at Lester Hall; the festivities had been presided over by Sophie, Mrs Jack Lester, ably seconded by Lucinda, now Harry Lester's bride. Both recent additions to the Lester family tree were discreetly but definitely enceintes, and radiant with it. The unabashed happiness that had filled the rambling old house had infected everyone.
But the week had drawn to its inevitable close; Philip was conscious that, despite the calm and orderly ambiance of his ancestral home, there would be no such warmth, no promise for the future, awaiting him there. The idea that he had invited Hugo, a friend of many years, confirmed bachelor and infrequent rake, to join him solely as a distraction, to turn his thoughts from the depressing path he saw opening before him, floated through his mind. He tried to ignore it.
He shifted in his seat, listening to the regular pounding of his carriage horses' hooves, firmly fixing his attention on the ripening fieldsonly to have Hugo ruthlessly haul his problem into the light.
"WellI suppose you'll be next." Hugo settled his shoulders against the squabs and gazed at the fields with unruffled calm. "Dare say that's what's making you glum."
Narrowing his eyes, Philip fixed them on Hugo's innocent visage. "Surrendering to the bonds of matrimony, walking knowingly into parson's mousetrap, is hardly a pleasant thought."
"Don't think of it at all myself."
Philip's expression turned decidedly sour. A gentleman of independent means and nought but distant family, Hugo had no need to wed. Philip's case was very different.
"Don't see why you need make such a mountain of it, though." Hugo glanced across the carriage. "Imagine your stepmother'll be only too happy to line up the young ladiesall you need do is look 'em over and make your selection."
"Being no less female than the rest of them, I'm certain Henrietta would be only too glad to assist. However," Philip continued, his tone tending steely, "should she be mistaken in one of her candidates, 'tis I, not she, who will pay the price. For life. No, I thank you. If mistakes capable of wrecking my life are to be made, I'd rather make them myself."
Hugo shrugged. "If that's the case, you'll have to make your own list. Go through the debs, check their backgrounds, make sure they can actually speak and not just giggle and that they won't simper over the breakfast cups." He wrinkled his nose. "Dull work."
"Depressing work." Philip shifted his gaze once more to the scenery.
"Pity there aren't more like Sophie or Lucinda about."
"Indeed." Philip delivered the word tersely; to his relief, Hugo took the hint and shut up, settling back to doze.
The carriage rattled on.
Reluctantly, Philip allowed his likely future to take shape in his mind, envisioning his life with one of society's belles by his side. His visions were unappealing. Disgusted, he banished them and determinedly set his mind to formulating a list of all the qualities he would insist on in his wife.
Loyalty, reasonable wit, beauty to an acceptable degreeall these were easy to define. But there was a nebulous something he knew Jack and Harry Lester had found which he could find no words to describe.
That vital ingredient was yet proving elusive when the carriage turned through tall gateposts and rumbled down the drive to Ruthven Manor. Tucked neatly into a dip of the Sussex Downs, the manor was an elegant Georgian residence built on the remains of earlier halls. The sun, still high, sent gilded fingers to caress the pale stone; stray sunbeams, striking through the surrounding trees, glinted on long, plain windows and highlighted the creepers softening the austere lines.
His home. The thought resonated in Philip's head as he descended from the carriage, the gravel of the forecourt crunching beneath his boots. With a glance behind to confirm that Hugo had awoken and was, in fact, alighting, he led the way up the steps.
As he approached, the front doors were set wide; Fenton, butler at the Manor since Philip had been in short-coats, waited beside them, straight as a poker but smiling.
"Welcome home, my lord." Deftly, Fenton relieved his master of his hat and gloves.
"Thank you, Fenton." Philip gestured as Hugo strolled in. "Mr Satterly will be staying for a few days." Unencumbered by ancestral acres, Hugo was a frequent visitor to the Manor.
Fenton bowed, then reached for Hugo's hat. "I'll have your usual room made ready, sir."
Hugo smiled in easy acquiescence.
Completing a brief scan of his hall, Philip turned back to Fenton. "And how is her ladyship?"
On the floor above, poised at the top of the grand staircase, her head cocked to listen, Antonia Mannering decided that his voice was deeper than she remembered it. His question, however, was quite obviously her cue.
Drawing in a deep breath, she closed her eyes in f leeting supplication, then opened them and started down. In a hurry. Not so precipitously as to be labelled hoydenish but rapidly enough to appear unconscious of the arrivals presently in the hall. She cleared the landing and started down the last flight, her eyes on the treads, one hand lightly skimming the balustrade. "Fenton, her ladyship wishes Trant to be sent up as soon as may be." Only then did she allow herself to glance up.
"Oh!" Her exclamation was perfectly gauged, containing just the right combination of surprise and fluster; she had practised for hours. Antonia slowed, then halted, her gaze transfixed. As it transpired, she needed no guile to make her eyes widen, her lips part in surprise.
The scene before her was not as she had pictured itnot exactly. Philip was there, of course, turning from Fenton to view her, his strongly arched brows lifting, his eyes, grey, as she knew, reflecting nothing more than polite surprise.
Swiftly, she scanned his features: the wide brow, heavy-lidded eyes and strongly patrician nose, the finely drawn lips above a firm and resolute chin. There was nothing in his expression, mildly distant, to cause her heart to beat wildly. Nevertheless, her pulse started to gallop; her breathing slowly seized. Panic of a wholly unprecedented nature fluttered to life within her.
His gaze dropped from her face; snatching in a breath, Antonia grabbed a dizzying moment to take in his broad-shouldered frame. Freed by a smooth shrug, a many-caped greatcoat slid into Fenton's waiting arms; the coat thus revealed was an unremarkable grey but so distinguished by line and form that not even she could doubt its origins. Brown hair waved in elegant disorder; his cravat was a collage of precise folds secured by a winking gold pin. Buckskin breeches clung to his long legs, outlining the powerful muscles of his thighs before disappearing into highly polished Hessians.
Dragging in a second breath, Antonia hauled her gaze back to his face. In the same instant, his eyes lifted and met hers.
He held her gaze, a frown in his eyes. His gaze shifted, focused on her hair, then dropped to her face. His frown dissolved into undisguised amazement.
Philip heard astonishment echo in his voice. Mentally cursing, he struggled to recapture his habitually indolent air, a task not aided by the fleeting smile Antonia Mannering cast him before gathering her skirts and descending the last stairs.
He stood anchored to the tiles as she glided towards him. His mind reeled, juggling memories, trying to reconcile them with the slender goddess crossing his hall, calm serenity in her heart-shaped face, a gown of sprig muslin cloaking a figure he unhesitatingly classed as exemplary.
The last time he had seen her she'd been only sixteen, thin and coltish but even then graceful. Now she moved like a sylph, as if her feet barely touched solid earth. He remembered her as a breath of fresh air, bringing ready laughter, open smiles and an unquenchable if imperious friendliness every summer she had visited. Her lips now bore an easy smile, yet the expression in her eyes as she neared was guarded.
As he watched, the curve of her lips deepened and she held out her hand.
"Indeed, my lord. It is some years since last we met.
Pray excuse me." With an airy wave, Antonia indicated her descent from above. "I hadn't realized you'd arrived." Smiling serenely, she met his eyes. "Welcome home."
Feeling as if Harry Lester had scored a direct hit to his jaw, Philip reached out and took her fingers in his. They quivered; instinctively, he tightened his grip. His gaze dropped to her lips, drawn irresistibly to the delectable curves; he forced his eyes upwards, only to become lost in a haze of gold and green. Dragging himself free, he lifted his gaze to her lustrous golden curls.
"You've cut your hair." His tone reflected his dazed state as clearly as it did his disappointment.
Antonia blinked. One hand still trapped in his, she hesitantly put the other to the curls bouncing above one ear. "No. It's all still there.. just twisted up."
Philip's lips formed a silent "Oh".
The odd look Antonia threw him, and Hugo's urgent cough, hauled him back to earth with a thump. Thrusting aside the impulse to pull a few pins and reassure himself that her golden mane was indeed as he recalled, he drew in a definite breath and released her. "Allow me to present Mr Satterly, a close friend. HugoMiss Mannering. My stepmother's niece."
Hugo's suave greeting and Antonia's unaffected reply gave Philip time to repair his defences. When Antonia turned back, he smiled urbanely. "I take it you finally succumbed to Henrietta's pleas?"
Her expression open, Antonia met his gaze. "Our year of mourning was behind us. The time seemed ripe to visit."
Resisting an unexpected urge to grin delightedly, Philip contented himself with, "My humble house is honouredit's a pleasure to see you within its walls again. I hope you've planned an extended stayhaving you by will greatly ease Henrietta's mind."
A subtle smile curved Antonia's lips. "Indeed? But there are many factors which might influence how long we remain." She held Philip's gaze for an instant longer, then turned to smile at Hugo. "But I'm keeping you standing. My aunt is presently resting." Antonia glanced at Philip. "Do you wish to take tea in the drawing-room?"
Beyond her, Philip glimpsed Hugo's appalled expression. "Ah perhaps not." He smiled lazily down at Antonia. "I fear Hugo is in need of more robust refreshment."
Brows rising, Antonia met his gaze. Then her lips curved; an irrepressible dimple appeared at the corner of her mouth. "Ale in the library?"
Philip's lips twitched. His eyes on hers, he inclined his head. "Your wits, dear Antonia, have obviously not dulled with age."
One delicate brow arched but her eyes continued to smile. "I fear not, my lord." She nodded to Fenton. "Ale in the library for his lordship and Mr Satterly, Fenton."
"Yes, miss." Fenton bowed and moved away.
Returning her gaze to Philip's face, Antonia smiled calmly. "I'll let Aunt Henrietta know you've arrived. She's just woken from her napI'm sure she'll be delighted to receive you in half an hour or so. And now, if you'll excuse me ?"
Philip inclined his head.
Hugo bowed elegantly. "Look forward to seeing you at dinner, Miss Mannering."
Philip shot him a sharp glance; Hugo was too busy returning Antonia's smile to notice.
Forsaking Hugo, Philip fleetingly met Antonia's eyes before she turned away. He watched her cross the hall, then climb the stairs, her hips gently swaying.
Hugo cleared his throat. "What happened to that ale?"
Philip started. With a quick frown, he gestured towards the library.
By the time she reached her bedchamber door, Antonia had succeeded in regaining her breath. She had not imagined her little charade would require such an effort. Her stomach was still tied in knots; her heart had yet to find its customary rhythm. Nervousness was not a reaction to which she was normally susceptible.
A frown knitting her brows, she opened the door. The windows were set wide; the curtains billowed in a gentle breeze. The scents of summer filled the airy chambergreen grass and roses with a hint of lavender from the borders in the Italian garden. Shutting the door, Antonia crossed the room. Placing both palms on the window sill, she leaned forward, breathing deeply.
"Well, I declare! That's your best new muslin."
Whirling, Antonia discovered her maid, Nell, standing before the open wardrobe. Thin and angular, her grey hair pulled tight in an unbecoming bun, Nell was busy replacing chemises and petticoats in their appointed places. Task complete, she turned, hands going to her hips as she surveyed Antonia. "I thought you was keeping that for a special occasion?"
A secretive smile tugged at Antonia's lips; shrugging, she turned back to the view. "I decided to wear it today."
"Indeed?" Nell's eyes narrowed. She picked up a pile of kerchiefs and started to sort them. "Was that the master who arrived just now?"
"Yes. Ruthven." Antonia leaned against the window frame. "He's brought a frienda Mr Satterly."
"Just the one?"
Nell's tone had turned suspicious. Antonia smiled. "Yes. They'll be at dinner. I'll have to decide what to wear."
Nell snorted. "Shouldn't take you long. If you're to sit down with gentlemen from London, it's either the pink taffeta or the jonquil silk."
"The jonquil silk, then. And I'll want you to do my hair."
"Naturally." Nell closed the wardrobe doors. "I'd best give a hand downstairs but I'll be back to pretty you up."
"Hmm." Antonia leaned her head against the window frame.
Nell swallowed her snort and headed for the door. Hand on the knob, she paused, eyeing the slim figure by the window with open affection. Antonia did not move; Nell's eyes narrowed, then her features relaxed. "Should I warn Master Geoffrey to come to the table prepared to be civil?"
The question jerked Antonia from her reverie. "Heavens, yes! I forgot about Geoffrey."
"That's a first," Nell muttered.
Frowning at the bedpost, Antonia didn't hear. "Be sure to warn him not to come to table with his nose in a book."
"Aye. I'll make the matter plain." With a grim nod, Nell departed.
As the door clicked shut, Antonia turned back to the garden, letting her senses slide into the sylvan beauty. She loved Ruthven Manor. Coming back had felt like coming home; at some instinctive level she had always belonged, not at Mannering Park, but hereamid the gentle rolls of the Downs, surrounded by trees so old they stood like massive sentinels all around the house. Those feelings and her affection for Henrietta had both influenced her decision.
Given Geoffrey was soon to enter the world, it was time for her to do the same. At twenty-four, her prospects were few; prosaic consideration had brought her here.
Philip, Lord Ruthven, had yet to take a wife.
Antonia grimaced, her unprecedented nervousness very fresh in her mind. But there was no place in her scheme for faintheartedness; this afternoon, she'd taken the first step. Playing out her part was now inevitableaside from anything else, she would never forgive herself if she didn't at least try. If Philip didn't see her in that light, so be it.
Recalling her promise to warn her aunt of his arrival, she shook herself. Glancing in the mirror, she fluffed her curls, her fingers stilling as she recalled Philip's fixation. Her lips quirked. Almost as if he'd been bowled overin the circumstances, a definitely heartening thought.
Holding tight to that prop to her confidence, she headed for her aunt's rooms.