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The Wedding Bargain
Chapter OneThe Opening GambitSpring, 1818
"You, my lord, are a rake and a rogue. A scoundrel." Pandora Effington leveled a gaze filled with every vile thought she could marshal at Maximillian Wells, the Earl of Trent. "in short, sir, you are a beast."
Trent stepped into the secluded salon, within easy distance of the crowded ballroom of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rockingham, yet far enough away to provide a discreet meeting place for a private assignation.
"You are indeed. You should probably be shot."
"I scarcely know what to say." He snapped the doors closed behind him.
A twinge of apprehension stabbed at her. Perhaps it was not a good idea to be alone with a rake, a rogue, a scoundrel, and a beast.
"Except, of course," amusement glimmered in his eye, "thank you."
"Thank you?" Why, the man was as arrogant as she had heard.
The comers of his mouth twitched as if he struggled to hold back a grin. "It is not often that one receives such a compliment."
"It was in no way intended as a compliment. " In the space of a few moments, Trent had managed to turn the conversation completely around. Why was she surprised? She should have expected that he wouldn't believe her comments were criticism of the highest order. His reputation preceded him.'
Trent leaned against the carved fireplace mantel in a manner at once casual and challenging. "Perhaps it was not intended as such, but it was indeed high praise. Although I must admit, I did not expect flattery when you lured me in here."
"Oh?" Pandora was never particularly given to caution, but the same instinct that kept her from straying too far past the bounds of proper behavior warned her now to take care. Stiff, curiosity was as integral to her existence as the beat of her heart. "What did you expect?"
Trent raised a brow.
Pandora laughed in spite of her annoyance. He did indeed have an inflated opinion of himself. "Surely, you did not presume -- "
Trent nodded, a slow smile spread ing across his face. "What would you have me believe? I am enticed into a private setting -- "
"I did not entice you."
" -- For reasons completely unknown to me -- "
"I intend to make those perfectly clear."
" -- By a woman who is no longer a green girl, and by all accounts should know what she is about. I believe this is your eighth season, is it not?"
It should not have bothered her, this reminder that in a life filled with the excitement of following her own rules, her inability or unwillingness to marry was a failure in the eyes of most. Yet it did. Always. Her amusement vanished and she gritted her teeth. "Seventh."
"Forgive me. One tends to lose track when a young lady passes a certain age. But then again. the term 'young' is relative, don't you think?"
"I am barely four-and-twenty. Hardly in my dotage."
"As old as that," he murmured. "One would consider most women of that age past their prime and firmly on the shelf."
"If I am on the shelf, it's because I prefer to be there." She settled on the edge of a perfectly appointed settee in the perfectly appointedsaIon and adopted a calm demeanor that belied her irritation at his condescending attitude. "I quite value my independence."
"Oh?" Skepticism rang in his tone. I thought the wish of every unmarried young woman of notable family was to wed, preferably to a noble title and nobler income."
She raised her chin. "It has never been my particular desire to marry."
"Come now, my dear." The expression on his face verged on pity and her hand itched to slap it off. "One would have to have been blind and deaf not to have noticed the enthusiasm with which you've thrown yourself into the festivities of the marriage mart the past eight seasons."
"Six." Was he deliberately baiting her, or was he really as sanctimonious as he sounded?
"The number scarcely matters; suffice it to say, it is considerable. If you are not interested in marriage, as you claim, what are you interested in?" He paused as if struck by the answer to his own question. "Forgive me, I should have realized."
"Realized ... what?" She did not like the knowing look in his eye.
In two strides he was by her side, towering over her in a most disconcerting way. Quickly she rose to her feet. He stood nearly a foot taller than she, and his eyes, gray and deep, gazed down at her in an impertinent and assessing manner. No, she did not like the look in his eyes at all. Unease fluttered in her stomach. He stood far closer than propriety dictated, and while she'd never cared about silly edicts before, at once she comprehended their worth.
"I take pride in being an intelligent man, but tonight I seem to have forgotten myself." He took her hand, turned it palm up, and lightly brushed his lips against the sensitive skin of her wrist, revealed by an unbuttoned gap in her glove. Her breath caught. "I understand completely now."
"You do?" Why didn't she? She too prided herself on her intelligence. Yet at the moment she could do little more than wonder why she had never before realized gray was quite an intriguing shade for a man's eyes.
"Indeed." He nodded soberly. "While in most circumstances the daughter of a viscount would have to depend on marriage to secure her future, all of London knows your father has seen fit to ensure you not only a substantial inheritance, but funding enough to provide you with independence even now." The Wedding Bargain. Copyright © by Victoria Alexander. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.