Copyright © 2012, 2003 by Gloria Dale Skinner
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Originally published in 2003 by The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York
The first week of the Season draws to a close with a flurry of elegant parties and delicious news. The dashing Lord Colebrooke has returned to London to attend the rest of the Season. Word has it he is determined to make a match before Season’s end. There is news about a group of young ladies who meet in the home of Miss Isabella Winslowe. Hmm—can anyone report on what mischief those damsels might be up to?
Society’s Daily Column
Daniel Fletcher Colebrooke, the seventh Earl of Colebrooke, folded the broadsheet before letting it drop to the floor by his feet. He settled into the comfortable leather-covered wing chair in the book room of his London town house. Leaping flames flickered and crackled in the fireplace, casting pleasant shadows on the bookshelves, the furniture, and the lean face of his best friend.
The brandy in Daniel’s glass, warmed by his hand, slid smoothly down his throat as he took a sip. It was an unusually cold spring afternoon. The brandy and the fire took the chill off the dreary gray day.
“You know, Chilton, I could not care less what the gossips say about me.”
Sitting opposite Daniel, his impeccably dressed friend eyed him with unconcealed doubt. “Liar. I remember when you used to take great delight if any of the scandal sheets saw fit to mention your name.”
When Daniel was second in line to the title, that used to be true, but things had changed. Back then he was young and restless and enjoyed the excitement of doing things that brought the eyes and ears of Society to him and away from his older brother.
“Those days were a lifetime ago,” Daniel said, more to himself than to Chilton.
“Merely two and a half years. You used to be an adventurous friend and a sought-after rake by all the young ladies, Danny. Now you are as dull as a lamppost.”
Daniel laughed and remained relaxed in his comfortable chair by the low-burning fire. The warmth of the familiar room and the banter with his close friend made him aware of how much he’d missed being in London and enjoying the company of his friends and family.
“That’s what I call an endearing remark from a friend of more than a dozen years. No chance of a man feeling melancholy when you’re around.”
“Everyone in the
was upset that you chose to skip all the parties last Season and make a pilgrimage to your lands and holdings throughout the country.”
“Damnation,” Daniel muttered with no real frustration in his voice. “I was in mourning for my father and my older brother as well as trying to comfort my distraught sister. I needed to get away from London and see to my estates. I hadn’t exactly been groomed to take over managing the properties.”
Chilton stretched his long legs out before him and crossed one booted foot over the other. “Not an excuse, Danny. Eight months had passed. As the new earl, Society thought you should have at least attended the parties and looked over their eligible young ladies.”
Daniel gave his older, dark-eyed friend a knowing smile. “The way you do every year? You look whether or not you intend to take.”
“It keeps the pushy mamas and eager fathers at bay.”
“You would be a handsome catch for any lady,” Daniel told him.
“If I were interested.”
“And why aren’t you?”
Daniel couldn’t help noticing that Chilton hesitated before he answered, and it wasn’t contentment that Daniel heard in his voice. It was more like resignation. Daniel wondered what had happened in Chilton’s life in the year he’d been gone.
“Has it escaped the
’s notice that you look over the young ladies every Season, but at thirty-three you have yet to make a match?”
Reflections of the fire flashed in Chilton Cummerford’s eyes as he warmed to the debate. “Ah—but don’t let your memory fail you so quickly. The
doesn’t care as much about the second son of a title as it does a title.”
“Oh, the title again.”
“You can’t escape it. Society considers it downright vulgar when an eligible earl leaves Town and doesn’t attend even one party of the Season.”
Daniel’s smile turned to a grin. “It sounds as if someone is trying to intimidate me. Did anyone send you to speak to me about my neglected duties?”
Chilton shook his head, but the movement was so slight Daniel might have missed it in the dim firelight had he not been watching his friend so closely.
“Right now you are the most eligible gentleman on the market in London, and the
wants you to attend the parties and act like you know it.”
“What a wretched thought,” Daniel muttered, and then took a deep breath.
“I understand that you don’t want to be leg-shackled, but it’s expected of you.”
“I’m beginning to believe you are the one responsible for telling the gossips that I was returning to London to find a wife.”
Chilton’s lips curved in a roguish smile. “Why would I want to tell on my best friend?”
“Jealousy, of course.”
“Right.” Chilton huffed under his breath and stirred in his chair. “I’m filled with envy because you are now an earl with all the responsibilities the title carries, and I am still merely a second son with a generous income and absolutely no responsibilities whatsoever.”
Daniel shrugged and wondered why he couldn’t decide if Chilton was mocking him or himself. There was something about his friend that was different, but Daniel couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. Yet.
He chose to ignore Chilton’s comment and said, “No doubt Gretchen or Aunt Mattie let it slip to someone that I intended to come back to town for the purpose of making a match. It appears that my returning to claim a bride has made the
“If not myself.”
“You don’t matter. It’s the title that is important. There’s already a wager in the book at White’s that you’ll have your first offer from some young lady’s father tomorrow morning before you’ve finished dressing.”
Daniel inhaled the deep, satisfying aroma of the brandy before he sipped his drink. He then looked at Chilton and asked, “How much did you wager?”
“Danny, do you think I would bet on my oldest and dearest friend?”
“In an instant.”
“Ouch. Why so little?”
“I expect to lose.”
Daniel laughed again. He’d missed Chilton and the carefree days of their youth. In the past they had enjoyed spending their nights gaming at the private tables and drinking until dawn broke the sky. Most of their days had been spent gambling or racing horses. But Daniel knew those times of ignoring all the rules were behind him. His destiny was now to be a respectable, married member of the
, not a rakish bachelor in search of debauchery.
“Back in Town, and in less than twenty-four hours, I’m in White’s book? I’m flattered.”
“Now, that sounds like the old Daniel.”
“Damn, Chilton,” Daniel said, letting his guard drop for a moment as he stared into the fire. “Life was so much easier before I came into the title. Back when I was merely the Honorable Daniel Colebrooke, with no thought of ever stepping into my father’s shoes.”
Chilton drained his glass before saying, “You’re up to the task.”
There were times over the past two years when he didn’t think he was. Daniel had no idea of the magnitude of his father’s wealth until the earl’s death. Being the second son born, Daniel had no thoughts of ever becoming the Earl of Colebrooke. That honor should have fallen to his brother. Not Daniel. He had been content to live in London playing the carefree role of the gentleman rogue.
Daniel picked up the brandy decanter from the table beside him and passed it to Chilton. “I don’t relish the idea of having a wife,” Daniel said.
“What man does? It’s just an easier life when you have no one depending on you.”
“But you must choose a girl suitable to be your countess if you don’t want the title to pass to your cousin and his son. You have no choice,” his friend reminded.