Wedding Wagers(2)

By: Donna Hatch

“Thank you.” Michael bowed again.

Phillip jumped back into the conversation, as it were. “Good evening, Mother. I hope you have a pleasant time.” Phillip inclined his head again and headed for the door.

“Phillip.” His brother’s voice stopped him. Hadn’t he been across the room a moment ago?

Phillip swung back to greet His Grace, the Duke of Suttenberg, whose ducal poise cracked long enough to smile. Suttenberg’s pale shock of hair in front, so starkly contrasting with the rest of his dark hair, seemed lighter than usual—almost white. Of course, everyone thought the unusual birthmark striking and so fitting for the newest in a long line of dukes.

Phillip’s matching blond streak served as a glaring reminder that he should be targeted for his connections—not for his dashing good looks, intellect, and charm. All these he possessed in spades, of course.

“Suttenberg.” Phillip couldn’t help but grin at his brother. It wasn’t really Suttenberg’s fault he’d been born first and had both the title and the perfectionist instincts to make him superior in every way to a mortal younger brother. Despite common opinion, Suttenberg hadn’t always been so perfect. As boys, they’d gotten into their share of scrapes together. Father’s untimely death had changed everything.

Phillip never wanted the burden of a title. He sought a girl who actually saw him and not merely a fat purse or the means to climb the slippery social ladder. Being the younger brother of a duke, a paragon of perfection, made that difficult. Still, Phillip refused to let his brother’s brilliance blind every woman alive. Surely somewhere existed a lady of substance, someone extraordinary, who would see Phillip for the man he was. He would find her, even if it took years, and he would make her his own.

Suttenberg clapped a hand on Phillip shoulder. “I haven’t seen you in a fortnight, little brother.”

Phillip shrugged. “We’ve both been busy. You with Parliament, and I . . .” He jabbed a finger over his shoulder at Michael. “Cavenleigh Stables needed my wisdom moving this year’s batch to Tattersall’s.”

Michael snorted, but Phillip didn’t give him the satisfaction of looking at him.

“Ah, yes. I would enjoy looking over your new stock,” Suttenberg said to Michael.

“I’d be honored,” Michael said. For a man of few words, he usually said everything right.

“Are you leaving so soon?” Suttenberg’s gaze returned to Phillip.

“We have young ladies to meet elsewhere,” Phillip said. “It’s a chore to be so much in demand. Of course, you wouldn’t know.” He grinned.

Suttenberg huffed a laugh. “I know nothing of demands.”

Phillip shook his head mournfully. “You really ought not be such a wastrel, you know. People are starting to talk.”

Mirroring Phillip’s expression, Suttenberg nodded. “A challenge, to be sure, but I’ll make an attempt.”

Phillip glanced at Michael, waiting patiently for him by the door to the great hall, and said to his brother, “Good night, Duke.”

“Good night, little brother.” A grin came with the term of endearment, since they stood at equal height.

Waving over his shoulder, Phillip headed for the great hall. After they retrieved their hats, they went out into the night. Perhaps Vauxhall Gardens would produce an unusual lady of true character and substance who would see him for the man he was, a man who offered more than a powerful family connection.

Meredith Brown stood in the small river park several feet away from the riverbank, clutching her cloak and questioning her sanity. Surely there were better ways to spend the evening than taking a boat across an enormous, dirty, and somewhat dangerous river as the tide came in. The sinking sun offered little warmth, and a chill wind blew off the Thames. Incoming tide rushed through the arches below the nearest bridge and lapped hungrily at the banks, gurgling like some live beast. Little boats filled with passengers bobbed while ferrymen battled against currents, making slow progress toward the far bank.

“Cheer up, Merry.”

Meredith jumped. She pressed a hand over her chest and tried to breathe. “Gracious, but you gave me a scare.” She frowned at her cousin, Annabel Stafford.

“This will be fun,” Annabel said. “They call it Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens for a reason.”

“I’m not certain the method of reaching the gardens is safe.”

“You can’t always play it safe, Merry. Sometimes the best things happen when you take a chance.” Annabel tucked a wayward auburn curl back into her bonnet, a stylish creation that sported more flowers than Uncle’s garden.

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