Dash it all, Leonora. Don’t keep me in suspense any longer, my dear.” Sir Hugo Peverill glanced up from his eager ingestion of the roast goose, an expectant gleam in his eye. “How soon can he come?”

To delay her reply, Leonora pretended an intense concentration on her dinner. She was hungry. It had been a long, cold ride to Bramleigh and back, with only her indignation to keep her warm on the return journey.

“Well? How soon?” repeated Sir Hugo.

Still, Leonora hesitated to speak the words. She was no coward. Cousin Wesley had often claimed she possessed more courage than a field officer—denying society’s expectations by remaining unwed and devoted to her scholarly pursuits.

It was one thing to deny society. Quite another to deny Sir Hugo when he took hold of an idea. Leonora often compared her late aunt’s husband to a Royal Mail coach. Thundering toward his destination. Waving away objections like the Royal Mail speeding through toll stations. Impatient of the slightest delay or detour.

He wouldn’t be happy with the detour she was about to deliver him. No sense in forestalling the inevitable, however.

“He isn’t coming, Uncle.” Though she tried to sound indifferent, Leonora braced for the backlash. “We’ll simply have to find someone else. I’m certain there are plenty of men with the sense to recognize a unique opportunity when they’re presented with one.”

“Not coming? Ridiculous. Rot!” Sir Hugo’s white side-whiskers bristled aggressively and his prominent Roman nose cleaved the air. “Of course he’s coming.”

Leonora almost expected him to add, Sergeant Archer just doesn’t know it yet.

She shook her head. “No, Uncle. He was quite adamant on the point. I had a devil of a time even persuading him to give me a hearing. When I finally won the opportunity to state my business, he accused me of trying to cram charity down his throat.”

“Then you must’ve gone about it all the wrong way.” Eerily pale blue eyes shone with a glacial light that terrified many people. “Knew I should’ve gone with you. You’re a fine filly, Leonora, but you don’t reckon with the importance of a man’s pride.”

Leonora pushed her plate away. Her stomach suddenly felt sour. She longed to remind Sir Hugo that she’d seen her family’s fortune decimated, all in the name of assuaging male pride. Noting how the ruddy flesh of his jowls had taken on a deep mulberry cast, she refrained from engaging him in a full-scale argument.

For all his overbearing will and eccentric whims, he was a warmhearted, generous creature. With only a tenuous claim of kinship by marriage, he had been more of a father to her than any of the men her mother had married.

“Don’t get yourself into a state, Uncle.” She did her best to soothe him. “Can’t we just find someone else? I don’t believe Sergeant Archer will do it no matter who asks or how we coax him. He’s an impossibly stubborn fellow.”

“Stubborn?” Sir Hugo brandished his bread knife like a sword. “Poppycock! Resolute, you mean. It took a resolute character to defy orders and take on a dozen Frenchmen with bayonets to save Wesley.”

Leonora could well picture Morse Archer fighting off an entire French battalion. It was no stretch to conceive of him defying orders. The difficult part was imagining him doing all that for the sake of someone else.

Long ago, she had reconciled herself to the notion that human beings were selfish creatures at heart. The sergeant had struck her as a man well accustomed to looking out for himself. She had tried appealing to his sense of altruism by mentioning her school. He’d been positively insulting in his refusal, with more cant about unwanted charity.

The truth suddenly dawned on Leonora. “That’s what this wager is about, isn’t it, Uncle Hugo? Not me and my school. You’re just using them as an excuse to repay Sergeant Archer.”

“Harrumph! Excuse? Repayment? Nothing of the sort!” Sir Hugo took a deep draft of his wine, avoiding Leonora’s gaze.

“He wouldn’t accept your help when you offered it outright.” She persisted. “So you hit on the idea of this wager. You might have been frank with me.”

A look of relief came over Sir Hugo’s florid features. An unusually forthright man, he could not have enjoyed misleading her.

“I’ll own that was part of it. I hadn’t much hope of Wes getting off the Peninsula alive. You’ll never know what it meant to me, having him here at the last. There’s scarcely enough in this world I can do to repay Archer for making that possible. Wish I could make him understand.”

He spoke that last sentence on a sigh heaved from deep within his stout frame. Leonora could almost feel the weight of his debt on her own heart.

“I can’t say I care to be manipulated like this, Uncle,” she chided him, but gently. More in hurt than in anger. “I thought you were in earnest about our wager.”

“So I am, my dear. Whatever gave you the notion I wasn’t? I take our wager very seriously indeed.” His gaze rested on her with tangible fondness. “I want to see you settled and happy with a good man and a brood of lively young ones I can spoil rotten in my dotage.”

“Uncle!” Leonora could not keep a hint of asperity from her voice. “We’ve been over this territory a hundred times at least. You know I’d never be happy in a marriage, any more than Wesley would have been happy as a civilian.”

Too late, she clapped a hand over her mouth. Not for anything in the world would she add to her uncle’s pain.

The Wedding Wager