Revised, edited, copy-edited, two rounds of proofreading and tweaking. Not quite final so still subject to change.
Teversault, The Dukeries, Nottinghamshire, England
Stoke’s ability to strike terror into the hearts of mere mortals was a talent too useful not to keep in good order. Five steps into the Grand Falcon saloon, so named because of the eponymous birds carved into the molding, and a pocket of silence had formed around him. He stood motionless, searching for his brother because she would surely be with William. Though a hair over six feet tall, Stoke did not think of himself as tall on account of his brother being six feet three-and-a-half inches of lion-hearted masculinity. A credit to the Besett line.
None of the strangers here, and there were many, had so far guessed he was a Besett. The Besett. In respect of looks, Stoke was at the edge of unattractive, a fact of which he was acutely aware. Besetts, male or female, were either dark-eyed and hawkish or blue-eyed and leonine. He was of the hawkish Besett. William was of the leonine. William was beloved for his wit and humor and easy manners. Stoke was feared on all accounts.
There. At the other side of the room. As he headed for his brother, all but the least observant among his guests moved out of his way. This reaction had been the case for so long he no longer realized it was unusual. Nevertheless, the saloon was crowded enough that walking a straight line was not possible.
He walked forcefully, propelling his lean-muscled body through space as if a current of air carried him and no one else, a Besett hawk making his way past peacocks toward one Besett lion. He reached them in due course but halted some feet short of where William held court. The Hunter sisters stood on either side of his brother. The women were the younger siblings of a protégée of Stoke’s, presently in Paris and attached to the British Embassy there. He willed away the unwelcome thud of his pulse at the sight of Mrs. Lark. There was no point allowing it.
She had never been much in terror of him, but he’d been unable to close the distance between them, either. By habit, he was a man who observed from afar, who must see the eagle’s-eye view of a problem before plunging to grasp in metaphorical talons the required solution. He did not act until he was certain. William saw his quarry and pounced. Half a minute later, his prey would be a bosom friend.
Mrs. Lark was quick-witted, generous, and always believed the best of everyone. Like William, she threw herself into friendships with no hesitation. He’d spent too long observing her, understanding her. His caution and prudence, in the matter of the former Miss Hunter, had proved fatal to his hopes, for she’d blithely danced out of his view and into the arms of another man.
This was her first visit to Teversault in all the time since her family and his had become connected. He’d last seen her a year ago at one of the assemblies in Hopewell-on-Lyft, though he’d not danced with her despite her being out of mourning. They’d barely spoken, and why should they have? He had no ability to make himself into the sort of man who would suit her.
Grief no longer shadowed her eyes, and she’d regained some, though not enough in his opinion, of the weight she’d lost. She had always been a tidy woman who much resembled her elder brother, and so she remained. She was not tall enough for a man his height and certainly not for someone William’s size. There was no disguising the generous curve of her bosom, all the more apparent because she was quite small and slender everywhere else. Her hair was irredeemably orange, far too pale to be called red. Her alabaster skin made her freckles all the more obvious. The cleft in her chin was charming, but had the effect of making her mouth appear decadent. Though he could not see from where he stood, he knew her eyes were the color of cognac held to candlelight.
She was a decade younger than he, twenty-three. Married at twenty-one, widowed less than a year later. William, resplendent and too handsome for his own good—he was of the lion line, after all—rested a familiar and possessive hand on her shoulder.
“Revers,” William had just said, raising his voice to be heard over the noise. “These are the young ladies I’ve been telling you about.” Lord Revers bowed. “George, this is the Viscount Revers.”
She curtseyed. “My lord.”
The saloon was filled with guests, more than in any previous year for these series of summer parties across the estates that made up the Dukeries. This circumstance was the weight of tradition, alas. Balls, fˆtes, routs, picnics, the Dukeries Cup race on the serpentine, all to culminate in a grand ball which the Prince Regent himself was to attend. One was no one without possession of the right to say he, or she, had been a guest at one of the Dukeries parties.
“Revers, this is George.” William grinned. “Mrs. Lark.”
Revers looked bored but took her hand and bowed over it. As he did, his attention slid to the other sister. Just as well, as far as Stoke was concerned. “Delighted to meet you, Mrs. Lark.”
“George.” William thumped her shoulder. “Everyone calls her George.”
George. As if she were a man. As if it were proper for anyone to call her that except her most intimate friends. She’d only just met Revers. The man had no business addressing her as anything but Mrs. Lark.
“Lord William.” She tapped his arm with her closed fan. “Not everyone.” Then she smiled. “Likewise, my lord.”
She had no idea what transformation took place when she smiled. No idea at all. Revers did not release her hand. Instead, he cocked his head. When he spoke, his words and manners were smooth and liquid. “Lord William’s been talking for years about the delightful women of Uplyft Hall.” He put his free hand over his heart. “At last we meet.”
She drew her hand from his, by smile alone transformed from unexceptional to ravishing. A woman a man wanted under him in bed. God knew Revers was rogue enough to be thinking how to get her there. “At last, sir.”
“A pox on you for not introducing me sooner Lord William.” Revers had a reputation for liking the ladies too well. There had been indiscretions on his part. To George, Revers said, “I’ll make up for time lost, I promise you.”
Still with that smile, she laughed. Revers was fascinated. This was her gift, that when she smiled, one was convinced there was no finer, kinder, or more desirable woman than her.
“Miss Hunter.” William brought the young lady forward. He beamed as if he were introducing a beloved sister to a man he hoped would agree they’d be an excellent match. “Will you allow me to introduce Lord Revers?”
The young lady extended a hand with less poise than he would have expected from one of her beauty. Golden hair, blue eyes. An oval face without a single freckle. “Yes, please.”
“Kitty, this bold fellow here is Lord Revers.” The Lord only knew how long Revers would have stared had not William brought Miss Hunter closer yet. “Revers, this enchanting creature is Miss Kitty Hunter.”
Kitty blushed and put her hand on the palm Revers extended to her. The viscount bowed over her hand. “Delighted to meet you as well, Miss Hunter.” He looked her up and down. “Such beauty. I am enrapt. Enthralled by the perfection before me.”
George darted an assessing glance at Revers. He was handsome enough to present a danger to youthful virtue, which no doubt George well understood. He was also possessed of a title and a fortune, and one forgave too much in the face of that.
William kept his hand on George’s shoulder. “George, Kitty, you’ve met everyone who matters. You might as well retire for the day.” The remark was uttered in a breezy, thoughtless manner without consideration of there being anything forward about calling the women names that ought only be used by family and one’s most intimate friends. His brother glanced around the room but did not, for whatever reason, see him standing not five feet away. “Except for that dashed brother of mine, of course.”
“Are you sure he’s here?” George asked. Careless. Not particularly interested in the answer.
“Hiding in his room, I expect.” William glanced at the ceiling. “You know how he despises parties.”
“Yes,” she said. “I do recall.”
Stoke wended his way closer. As well make himself known to them before someone spoke ill of him. He put a hand on William’s shoulder and did not smile. “Here you are. I have been searching for you these ten minutes at least.”
“Stoke!” William shook his head of tawny hair that had not one single curl. “You’ve been searching for me? Well, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Ten minutes, you say?” He drew George’s hand through his arm and placed his hand over hers. “You ought to have been here an hour ago.”
“Business detained me.”
George curtseyed with an elegance she had acquired during her marriage, for she’d not had that polish when he knew her before. Her eyes were as remarkable as in his memory. He’d not forgotten how clear they were. He could not help but admire them as if he had. She took a breath and held it for a moment—composing herself? Perhaps, for her smile faded. She extended her hand. “How lovely to see you again.”
He touched her fingers, nothing more. Orange hair. Freckles. That decadent mouth and lush bosom. “Mrs. Lark. Welcome to Teversault.”
“Thank you.” She smiled, more reserved with him than with William, whom she’d known for at least a decade. William and her brother were friends from their days at Eton and Oxford. William had been to Uplyft Hall a dozen times before the day Stoke had agreed, reluctantly, to drive William there on his way to Nottingham.
There was nothing extraordinary about her. Nothing at all. Yet the jolt of arousal at seeing her again was unwelcome and inappropriate.
He took Kitty’s hand and bent over it. “Charmed to see you again, Miss Hunter. Welcome, both of you, to Teversault. I hope you enjoy your visit.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Quite a pretty young woman now that she’d outgrown her schoolroom days.
“It’s more beautiful here than I imagined, and I assure you I imagined a great deal.” George threw one arm wide in a gesture that included the whole of Teversault. “Hugh and Lord William did not do it justice. Nor you, Your Grace.” Miss Hunter widened her eyes at her sister, and George moderated her enthusiasm. “I mean to say, this is a house of taste and elegance.”
He studied her, working out how she could be at once undistinguished and intensely appealing. The curve of her bosom, the shape of her lips, that cleft in her chin, the clear, pale brown of her eyes. Put all together, and he never failed to think of darkened rooms and bodies sliding along sheets. One day some rogue was going to decide that he wanted to know if she could be persuaded to put that mouth to corrupt uses.
She looked to his brother. “Lord William promised us a tour later.”
William put a hand over his heart. His handsome, charming brother must have had such thoughts about her. How could he not? The idea that George and William were suited made his stomach tighten in an unwelcome manner. “So you shall have one,” William said. “I keep my promises, George.”
William’s gaze connected with his, and it was appallingly apparent that his brother was in a fair way of fancying himself in love with George and that he was matchmaking for Revers and the younger girl. William fell in love with a different woman every fortnight, it seemed. So Stoke told himself. There was no cause for concern. He would be out of love before the prince arrived.
His greater worry was how determined Revers would be in pursuing Miss Hunter. The women were under his protection here. If Revers thought to seduce either of them, the viscount would find in him an implacable enemy.
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