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By Stephanie Laurens
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Stephanie Laurens
All right reserved.
Late April, 1816
"Dear Deverell, of course I know exactly the right lady for you." Head high, Audrey Deverell swayed back on the stool on which she was perched, narrowed her eyes at the canvas she was daubing, then delicately touched the tip of her brush to one spot. Apparently satisfied, she regained her equilibrium and looked down at the palette balanced on her arm. "I'm only surprised it's taken you so long to ask."
Seated in a well-cushioned wicker armchair beside the wide windows through which the afternoon sun washed across his aunt's "studio," Jocelyn Hubert Deverell, 7th Viscount Paignton, known to all as simply Deverell, watched Audrey select another hue to add to her creation--a landscape featuring what he thought was supposed to be a single large oak.
The last time he'd visited, a mere few months ago, this room had been devoted to basket weaving. When he'd been shown in and had discovered Audrey sitting on a high stool before a canvas on an easel, her long, thin frame swathed in a dun-colored smock with a black beret atop her brassy curls, he'd had to fight a grin, one she, who took each of her outlandish pursuits absolutely seriously, would not have appreciated.
His only paternal aunt, much younger than her threebrothers, of whom his father had been the eldest, Audrey was in her late forties. A determinedly confirmed spinster, she frequently pursued the outrageous. Nevertheless, being a Deverell and comfortably well-to-do, she remained an accepted member of the haut ton. Even though her more conventional friends, all long married, often displayed a certain jealousy over Audrey's flamboyant freedom, she was much sought after, if nothing else to add color and verve to said matrons' entertainments.
Audrey's audacious unconventionality had from his earliest years drawn Deverell to her; he felt infinitely closer to her than to any of his other aunts--three maternal and two by marriage. Consequently, now that he quite clearly needed the sort of assistance aunts provided gentlemen such as he, it was Audrey to whom he'd turned.
He hadn't, however, expected quite such a definite answer. Caution made him hesitate, but recollection of his state made him ask, "This lady--"
"Is quite perfect in every way. She's of excellent family, attractive and lively, suffers from no affliction, physical or mental, is well dowered, correctly and appropriately educated, and I can personally vouch for her understanding."
That last had him arching a brow. "A connection?"
Audrey flashed him a smile. "She's one of my goddaughters. I have a small platoon of them." She refocused on her painting. "Goodness knows why, but a multitude of my friends named me godparent to their offspring. I often wondered if they thought, childless as I am, that I shouldn't be allowed to escape the nurturing role entirely."
Deverell thought that only too likely. "This lady--"
"Will make you an outstanding wife. Trust me, I've seen your predicament coming for months, so of course I've given the matter due thought. You're thirty-two, and what with the title as well as the estates, you really must marry. Admittedly there are your uncles who could inherit after you, but as neither George nor Gisborne have sons of their own, that really isn't an acceptable alternative." Pausing in her daubing, Audrey shot him a severe glance. "And the last thing any of us would wish is to see the estate revert to Prinny!"
"Indeed not." The idea of the estates that, courtesy of the unexpected death of a cousin twice removed, had fallen into his lap reverting on his death to the Crown, and its licentious bearer, was one Deverell viewed with intense disfavor. He might not have expected to have to care for entailed estates, but now they were his, he'd be damned if he let Prinny, or whoever succeeded him, get their greedy hands on them.
Especially not now he'd visited his new holdings, the houses, farms and fields, and met those who tended them. Along with a title came responsibilities, and he'd never been one to shirk such obligations, even if unlooked for.
He was now Viscount Paignton; as such he had to marry. "Quite aside from the matter of an heir--"
"There's the social obligations, of course." Audrey nodded sagely, her gaze still on her canvas. "Your wife must be able to manage your houses, and even more importantly manage the dinners, parties, balls, and so on that as Paignton you will have to attend."
He didn't try to hide his grimace. "If she could minimize the latter--"
"Don't even think it, not until you've been married for years. Then, perhaps, you might be allowed to slink off and hide in your library. Until that time, you'll have to grit your teeth and stand by her side at all necessary functions." Audrey threw him another strait glance. "Along with managing your appearances, your wife's duties will include keeping you up to the mark--ensuring you appear at all the functions you ought."
Deverell met Audrey's glance levelly and inwardly wished his wife-to-be good luck. She'd need it. "You seem to have a very clear vision of the qualities my wife should possess."
"Well, of course, dear. I've known you from birth, and despite what you think, you are very like your father--you have little time for artifice and none at all for fools. And after spending the last ten and more years being a spy in France, I imagine your prejudices have only become more fixed. Consequently the notion of you finding any degree of marital satisfaction with the general run of young ladies is utterly untenable." She arched a brow at him. "I understand you've been casting your eye over the herd."
"The 'herd' appear to be henwitted flibbertigibbets with less sense than my horse."
Audrey grinned. "Quite. Well, there you are--it's clearly necessary to look elsewhere for your bride." Laying aside her palette, she reached for a rag; sitting back, she started cleaning her brush.
Excerpted from To Distraction by Stephanie Laurens Copyright © 2006 by Stephanie Laurens. Excerpted by permission.
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