Wedding Wagers(10)

By: Donna Hatch

“Would that not be easier to achieve if people believe I don’t offer an impressive dowry?”

“Your father might—”

“He might understand, all things considered, don’t you think?”

Aunt Paulette’s brows creased, and she closed her mouth, frowned, and said nothing for a long moment.

Annabel piped up. “I think she’s right, Mama. As her sponsor, you don’t have to name a sum, just imply that it’s very modest. And really, it’s all relative anyway, isn’t it?”

“Besides, the last I spoke to Papa,” Meredith said as if that had been weeks instead of years ago, “he mentioned reducing my dowry but increasing trust money that would stay in my control even after marriage. For all I know, he’s done that.”

None of their letters had mentioned such matters. They’d been polite, filled mostly with local events such as marriages and babies born, or the new garden Mama had designed, but no words of forgiveness or an invitation to return home.

Aunt Paulette finally nodded. “I see what you mean. Enough of a dowry so as not to be a true deterrent, but not so much as to attract anyone seeking a way to restore the family coffers.”

The tightness that had knotted inside Meredith relaxed enough to allow the first deep breath she’d taken in years.

The butler opened the door and said, “Forgive me, madam, but are you at home to a Mr. Partridge and Mr. Cavenleigh?”

He’d come. Meredith could hardly believe it. She would not allow herself to look too long at his stunning face or she might fall back into her former stupidity and fail to see his true intentions, whatever they may be.

“Show them in,” Aunt Paulette said.

The ladies touched up their hair and smoothed their skirts. The butler returned a moment later, followed by two gentlemen. Mr. Partridge entered first, followed by his leaner friend, a sandy-haired gentleman who nearly matched him in height. However, Meredith saw little else of his companion with her attention so focused on Mr. Partridge.

The Master Craftsman had certainly taken his time designing this fine specimen of a man. With beautifully formed features and a mouth perfect for kissing, he seemed to embody her girlish dreams of a prince charming who would carry her off to his castle in the clouds.

He and his friend bowed. Aunt Paulette and Annabel curtsied, reminding Meredith to do so.

“Mrs. Stafford, Miss Stafford, thank you for seeing me.”

Meredith had forgotten the musical beauty of Mr. Partridge’s voice.

“So kind of you to call, Mr. Partridge, Mr. Cavenleigh,” Aunt Paulette said. “May I present my niece, Miss Meredith Brown?”

Mr. Partridge’s eyes, the green and blue of a dappled country lake, caressed her face with a contradictory intensity and softness. His blond patch nestled in his dark waves, shining like a beacon. The light in the room emanated from his face, and all else faded away to colorless trivia.

No. Not again. Love was a trite fantasy. She would not be duped again.

“Mr. Partridge,” she said coolly. “Thank you for the flowers and candy. I assure you, it was not necessary.”

He blinked as if trying to merge her gracious words and frosty tone. “It was not near enough, I assure you. I hope you will forgive me.”

“Already forgiven. No need to fret.” Her voice still sounded chilly, even to her own ears.

Her aunt cleared her voice. “Won’t you both please sit and take a cup of tea?”

Mr. Partridge swung back to speak to Aunt Paulette. “Yes, thank you.” He glanced at his silent friend, and they both sat. He addressed Meredith, “I hope you suffered no ill effects from the mishap?”

“Not at all. You can rest easy knowing you owe me nothing. All is forgotten.”

His eyes narrowed slightly, and he tilted his head rather like a child trying to determine if an adult had told him the truth or a fanciful tale. It gave him a rather endearingly innocent expression. But she would not be so easily swayed. She had yet to determine his character. Which was foolish, really, since no ducal family member would lower himself to a factory owner’s daughter. And that line of thought was even more foolish.

“Truly,” she added with a smile. “I harbor no grudge. But thank you so much for taking time out of what is no doubt a busy schedule to call upon us.”

A dark brow shot up. “Am I being dismissed?” A curve to one side of his mouth revealed a dimple. Oh heavens, not a dimple!

“I wouldn’t presume to do so, Mr. Partridge; only to convey my appreciation of your solicitousness.” She had, in truth, been trying to subtly suggest he had no reason to stay. How surprising that he’d called her on it. If only he’d leave before she started to like him! She bowed her head and folded her hands in an attempt to appear demure.

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