"So what do you say to the wager, Miss Prentess? A diamond worth thousands against a night with me?"
No London beauty has managed to tame the incorrigible Jasper Coale, though many have lost their reputations trying. In sedate Bath on a family errand, the viscount expects to find little in terms of entertainmentcertainly no female company to tempt him.
Miss Susannah Prentess's discreet card parties in Royal Crescent offer a welcome distraction. And the glint in Susannah's hazel eyes tells Jasper he's met his match at last. But is she game enough to accept the most outrageous wager of all?
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'Well , well, Lord Markham, have you ever seen such a bonny child?'
Jasper Coale, Viscount Markham, looked down at the baby lying in its crib and was at a loss for words. Thankfully, his sister-in-law came to his aid.
'Fie now, Lady Andrews, when was a man ever interested in babies? I suspect the viscount is merely glad that his little godson is not screaming the house down, as he was doing during the ceremony.' Zelah gazed down fondly at her baby son. 'Fortunately the journey back from the church has rocked him off to sleep.'
The christening of Dominic and Zelah's second child had been a major event and the little church at Lesser-ton was crowded for the ceremony. Afterwards, Dominic laid on a feast at the White Hart for the tenants and villagers to enjoy, while family and close friends were invited to Rooks Tower for an elegant and substantial repast. Zelah had the satisfaction of seeing her rooms overflowing with guests, despite the threat of snow which was always a concern during the early months of the year. She suspected no small part of the inducement to the local families to leave their firesides was the knowledge that no lesser person than Viscount Markham would be present.
Jasper had been unable to attend the christening of his niece Arabella some eighteen months earlier, but Zelah and Dominic had asked him to stand godfather for their new-born son, and only the direst winter weather would have kept him away.
The fires at Rooks Tower were banked up, the table almost groaned with the banquet it was required to support and the wine flowed freely. Jasper was sure the neighbourhood would be talking about the Coales' hospitality for months to come. Most of the guests were gathered in the yellow salon, but Jasper had wandered across to join Zelah in the study where the baby was sleeping, watched over by his devoted nurse. Sir Arthur and Lady Andrews had followed him into the room, brimming with good humour thanks to the abundant quantities of wine and food.
'I admit I have nothing but praise for my godson while he is sleeping,' said Jasper, glancing down into the crib.
'It makes me quite broody,' declared Lady Andrews, causing her husband to guffaw loudly.
'Now, now, my dear, our breeding days are well past, thank the Lord!'
'I am well aware of that, sir.' The lady turned her bright gaze upon Jasper. 'But what of you, Lord Markham? I am sure, seeing your brother's felicity, you must envy him his happy state.'
Jasper's smile froze. Glancing across the crib, he saw the sudden alarm in Zelah's dark eyes. He must respond quickly, lest they notice how pale she had grown. But even as he sought for the words his sister-in-law recovered with a laughing rejoinder.
'Having spent the past two weeks here with his niece and godson, Lord Markham is more likely to value his freedom!' She tucked her hand in his arm. 'If you will excuse us, Sir Arthur, Lady Andrews, I must carry the viscount away now to speak to my sister before she leaves us '
'I commend your quick thinking,' he murmured as they crossed the hall.
'I had to do something,' she responded quietly. 'I did not want you to snub them for their impertinence. They are good people, and mean well.'
'Mean well!' He smothered an exclamation and after a moment continued, 'I beg your pardon, but it seems these days the whole world is eager to marry me off. I cannot look at a woman without her family hearing wedding bells.'
She chuckled. 'Surely it has always been thus. 'Tis merely that you are more aware of it now.'
'Perhaps you are right. I thought by leaving London I should have some respite from the incessant gossip and conjecture.'
Zelah gave a soft laugh and squeezed his arm.
'You are nigh on thirty years old, my lord. Society considers it time you settled down and produced an heir.'
'Society can go hang. I will not marry without love, and you know you are the only woman'
Zelah stopped. 'Hush, Jasper, someone may hear you.'
'What if they do?' He smiled down at her. 'Dominic knows you refused me, it matters not what anyone else thinks.'
Zelah shook her head at him, trying to joke him out of his uncharacteristic seriousness.
'For shame, my lord, what of your reputation as the wicked flirt no woman can resist? It would be sadly dented if word got out that you had been rejected.'
He looked down at her, wondering how it was that of all the women he had met, the only one he had ever wanted to marry should prefer his twin.
'So it would,' he said, raising her fingers to his lips. 'Then let it be our secret, that you are the woman who broke my heart.'
Zelah blushed and shook her head at him.
'Fie, Jasper, I may have bruised your heart a little, but it is not broken, I am sure. I am not the woman for you. I believe there is another, somewhere, far more suited to you, my lord.'
'Well, I have not found her yet, and it is not for want of looking,' he quipped lightly.
'Mayhap love will come upon you when you least expect it,' she responded. 'As it did with me and Dominic.'
Jasper's heart clenched at the soft light that shone in her eyes when she spoke of his brother. It tightened even more as he observed her delighted smile at the sound of her husband's voice.
'What is this, sir, dallying with my wife again?'
She turned, in no way discomposed at being discovered tete-a-tete with the irresistible viscount, but that was because she knew herself innocent of any impropriety. She had never succumbed to his charms, thought Jasper, with a rueful inward smile. That had always been part of the attraction. She held out her hand to her husband.
Marriage suited Dominic. The damaged soldier who had returned from the Peninsula, barely alive, was now a contented family man and respected landowner, the horrific scars on his face and body lessened by the constant application of the salves and soothing balms Zelah prepared for him.
'Lady Andrews has been telling Jasper it is time he married,' said Zelah, her laughing glance flicking between them.
'Aye, so it is,' growled Dominic, the smile in his hard eyes belying his gruff tone. 'Put the female population out of its misery. My friends in town tell me at least three more silly chits sank into a decline when you left London at the end of the Season.'
Jasper spread his hands. 'If they wish to flirt with me, Dom, who am I to say them nay? As for marriage, I have no plans to settle down yet.'
'Well, you should,' retorted his twin bluntly. 'You need an heir. I do not want the title. I am happy enough here at Rooks Tower.' His arm slid around Zelah and he pulled her close. 'Come, love. Your sister is about to set off for West Barton and wishes to take her leave of you.'
'Ah, yes, we were on our way to say goodbye to Maria and Reginald, and little Nicky, too. I doubt we shall see my nephew again before he goes off to school in Exeter.' She sighed. 'We shall miss him dreadfully, shall we not, Dom?'
'Little Nicky is now a strapping eleven-year-old and so full of mischief he is in serious danger of being throttled by my gamekeeper,' retorted her fond husband.
'Ripe and ready for a spree, is he?' Jasper grinned, remembering his own boyhood, shared with his twin. 'Then by all means pack him off to school.'
He allowed Zelah to take his arm again.
'So you intend to leave us tomorrow,' she remarked as they walked towards the yellow salon. 'Back to London?'
'No, Bristol. To Hotwells.'
'Hotwells?' Dominic gave a bark of laughter. 'Never tell me you are going to visit Gloriana Barnabus.'
'I am indeed,' replied Jasper. 'I had a letter from her before Christmas, begging me to call upon her.'
'What a splendid name,' declared Zelah. 'Is she as colourful as she sounds?'
'No,' growled Dominic. 'She is some sort of distant cousin, a fading widow who enjoys the poorest of health. Did she say why she is so anxious to see you after all these years?'
'Not a word, though I suspect it is to do with her son Gerald. Probably wants me to sponsor his entry into Parliament, or some such.'
Dominic shrugged as he stood back for his twin and his wife to enter the yellow salon.
'Well, dancing attendance upon Gloriana will keep you out of mischief for a while.'
Zelah cast a considering glance up at her brother-in-law.
'I am not so sure, my love. With that handsome face and his wicked charm, I fear Lord Markham will get into mischief anywhere!'
Jasper set off from Rooks Tower the following morning, driving himself in his curricle with only his groom beside him and his trunk securely strapped behind. Dominic and Zelah were there to see him off, looking the picture of domestic felicity. He did not begrudge his twin his happiness, but despite Zelah's words he could not believe he would ever be so fortunate. He had met so many women, flirted with hundreds, but not one save Zelah had ever touched his heart. With a sigh he settled himself more comfortably in the seat and concentrated on the winding road. He would have to marry at some point and provide an heir, but not yet, not yet.
Miss Susannah Prentess wandered into the morning room of her Bath residence to find her aunt sitting at a small gilded table whose top was littered with papers. She had a pen in hand and was currently engaged in adding up a column of figures, so she did not look up when her niece addressed her.
'How much did we make last night, ma'am?'
Mrs Wilby finished her calculations and wrote a neat tally at the bottom of the sheet before replying.
'Almost two hundred pounds, and once we have taken off the costs, supper, candles and the like, I think we shall clear one-fifty easily. Very satisfying, when one thinks it is not yet March.'
Susannah regarded her with admiration.
'How glad I am you discovered a talent for business, Aunt Maude.'
A blush tinted Mrs Wilby's faded cheek.
'Nonsense, it is merely common sense and a grasp of figures, my love, something which you have inherited, also.'
'And thank goodness for that. It certainly helps when it comes to fleecing our guests.'
'Susannah, we do not fleece anyone! It is merely that we are better at measuring the odds.' The blush was replaced by a more indignant rose. 'You make it sound as if we run a gaming house, which is something I could never condone.'
Susannah was quick to reassure her.
'No, no, of course not, I was teasing you. We merely invite our friends here for an evening of cards, and if they lose a few shillings'
'Or guineas,' she conceded, her eyes twinkling, 'then so much the better for us.'
Aunt Maude looked at her uncertainly, then clasped her hands and burst out, 'But I cannot like it, my love. To be making money in such a way'
'We do not make very much, Aunt, and some of our guests go away the richer for the evening.'
'Yes, but overalloh, my dear, I cannot think that it is right, and I know our neighbours here in the Royal Crescent do not approve.'
'Pho, a few valetudinarian spoil-sports. Our card parties are very select.' She sank down on to a sofa. 'I agree, Royal Crescent would not be my first choice of a place to live, but Uncle's will was quite explicit, I cannot touch my fortune or sell this house until I am five and twenty. Another two years.'
'You could let it out, and we could find something smaller.'
The wistful note was not lost on Susannah, but she shook her head, saying firmly, 'No, this house suits my requirements very well. The location lends our parties a certain distinction.' She added mischievously, 'Besides, I am a great heiress, and Royal Crescent is perfectly in keeping with my status.'
Aunt Maude looked down, gazing intently at the nails of one white hand.
'I thought, when you asked me to come and live with you, it was so that you could go about a little.'
'But I do go about, Aunt. Why, what with the Pump Room and the theatre, the balls and assemblies, we go about a great deal.'
'But I thought you wanted to find a husband.'
Susannah laughed at that.
'No, no, that was never my intention. I am very happy with my single state, thank you.'
'But at three-and-twenty you are in danger of becoming an old maid.'
'Then that is what I shall do,' she replied, amused. 'Or mayhap I shall accept an offer from one of the charming young men who grace our card parties.'
'If only you would,' sighed Mrs Wilby.
'Mr Barnabus proposed to me yesterday.' She saw her aunt's hopeful look and quickly shook her head. 'I refused him, of course. I tried very hard not to let it come to a proposal, but he would not be gainsaid.'
'Oh dear, was he very disappointed?'
'Yes, but he will get over it.'
'I hope to goodness he does not try to end it all, like poor Mr Edmonds.'
'I hope you do not think my refusing Jamie Edmonds had anything to do with his falling into the river.'
'I heard he jumped from Bath Bridge '
'My dear Aunt, he was drinking in some low tavern near the quay, as young men are wont to do, and then tried to walk the parapet on the bridge, missed his footing and tumbled off on to a coal barge.' Her lips twitched at the look of disappointment on her aunt's face. 'I know it to be true, Aunt, because Jamie told me himself, when I next saw him in Milsom Street.'
'But everyone said'
'I know what everyone said, but that particular rumour was spread by one of Mr Edmonds's friends, Mr Warwick. He was angry because I would not take an IOU from him last week and sent him home before supper.'
'Ay, yes, I remember Mr Warwick.' Mrs Wilby nodded.
'It was quite clear that he was drinking too much and was in no fit state to be in a respectable establishment.'
'And in no fit state to play at cards, which is more to the point,' added Susannah. 'But he did make me a very handsome apology later, so he is forgiven.' She jumped up. 'But enough of this. I am for the Pump Room, then back via Duffields, to find something to read. Will you come with me?'
'Gladly. I hope we shall find old friends at the Pump Room to converse with.'
Susannah's eyes twinkled wickedly.
'And I hope we shall find new friends to invite to our next card party!'