Wedding Wagers(4)

By: Donna Hatch

“How can I ever thank you?” The lady accepted her bonnet and inspected it for damage. With a shrug, she put it on and tied it firmly below her chin. Though rather plain, the lady of perhaps sixteen had an open, friendly smile, beautiful teeth, and a certain childlike innocence.

In Meredith’s peripheral vision, a gentleman stared at her. She allowed herself only a glance, but oh my, what a sight! As she pinned her gaze downward, the memory of that brief look at him superimposed itself over her vision—the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome. Looking at her. Wearing a suit more befitting a ballroom than a garden excursion, he stood a few inches taller than other men nearby. More notably, he had met her gaze boldly, as if he sought to learn all her secrets. No, she’d best not look a second time. She knew better than to trust the attentions of a handsome man.

“Mr. Partridge is looking at you,” Annabel whispered. “I declare he is almost as beautiful as Mr. Barrett.”

Annabel had it backward, actually, but Meredith didn’t contradict.

Pretending to tuck her auburn hair into her hat, Annabel turned slightly toward Meredith so as to make her words even more discreet. “You may recall that his brother is the Duke of Suttenberg—a paragon of a man. Now that would be a family to marry into.”

Being related to a duke made him completely out of reach, even if she dared risk her heart again. Wryly, Meredith said, “The duke or the brother?”

“Both. You seem to have caught Mr. Partridge’s eye. Again.”

“He’s probably wondering what kind of half-wit charges into the street after someone else’s bonnet.” Had she made a complete fool of herself? People in London probably didn’t do such things. “What do you mean ‘again’?”

“He’s the one who looked at you more than once at the St. Cyrs’ ball last week, if you will recall, although you were never introduced.”

She’d met and learned about such a dizzying number of people that she’d failed to remember all of them. Surely, if she’d seen him, she would have remembered.

Annabel tugged on her arm. “We’re next.” She brightened, her expression almost worshipful, as Tristan Barrett smiled at them and gestured to the boats.

“There is room for only two, plus the ferryman, so you need to pair up.” Mr. Barrett gestured to the handsome gentleman who’d been watching her. “Mr. Cavenleigh, will you ride over with Miss Annabel Stafford? And, Mr. Partridge, please ride with Miss Stafford’s friend. Miss . . .?” He glanced between Meredith and Annabel.

Annabel made the introductions. “May I introduce Mr. Tristan Barrett? Mr. Barrett, this is my cousin and my dearest friend, Miss Meredith Brown.” Annabel gave a melting smile to the handsome Mr. Barrett, who was probably the kind of man best avoided with his too debonair smile and too-handsome-for-his-own-good looks.

“Miss Stafford, have you met Mr. Partridge?” Mr. Barrett asked.

Meredith gripped Annabel’s hand without a single glance at the gentleman of whom he spoke. “We are supposed to stay together. I ought not get into a boat with anyone else.”

His eyes widened as if unaccustomed to anyone denying him anything, but nodded. “Very well, you two can take this boat then.” He handed them in while the ferryman kept the boat steady.

Meredith immediately sank down on the bench as the ferry rocked underneath her, threatening to throw her overboard.

Annabel stepped on board with a ballerina’s grace and shot Mr. Barrett a grateful, adoring, smile. “Thank you, Mr. Barrett.” She cocked her head at Meredith and asked under her breath. “You don’t really have to stay with me exclusively. We’re in a public place with a group.”

Meredith sent Annabel an apologetic glance. “Forgive me if you’re disappointed about not riding in a boat with a handsome gentleman, but . . .” How could she explain her near panic?

“You don’t need to apologize, Merry. I understand.” Annabel touched her hand.

But she didn’t understand, not really. How could she?

“Now you two.” Mr. Barrett gestured to the lady with the escaped purple bonnet and her escort.

The lady shrank back. “I . . . I don’t . . .” Her gaze focused on the water growing increasingly dark as the sun sank lower.

“Come now, Miss Harris,” said the gentleman with her. “It’s a short ride to the gardens.”

The frightened Miss Harris’ breath came in ragged gasps. “But the water is dark and swift, and I hear it’s filled with all manner of dangers.”

“It’s safe here, Miss Harris,” her escort responded. “See how many have crossed? The gardens are well worth the little jaunt in the ferry.”

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