Wedding Wagers(7)

By: Donna Hatch

“You got closer.” Michael chuckled again.

“Obviously, I didn’t mean to tip her boat or make her fall in. I need to be more clever next time.”

“That was clever. I’d wager she’ll never forget you.” Michael wiped his eyes.

“A step in the right direction. If I could only do something to improve her opinion of me. But first I must find her. I have little to go on beyond her being Annabel Stafford’s cousin.” Phillip stood and started pacing. Surely someone else would have noticed the lovely lady with hair the color of a rich brandy and in possession of an inherent kindness to all she met. “I need to gain an introduction.”

“It hardly signifies.” Michael sipped his lemonade, since he’d given up stronger drink years ago.

“How do you figure?”

“She likely won’t ever speak to you.”

“Of course she will. She didn’t seem that upset. She even laughed.” Her lovely, musical laugh, colored with a certain ruefulness, sang to him even in his dreams.

Michael’s mirth mingled with disgust. “You dumped her into the filthiest river in England. You’re both lucky she wasn’t struck by a submerged log or something of the like.”

“Yes, we were both fortunate, indeed, that it didn’t go worse for her. I must find a way to make it up to her. This goes way behind flowers, obviously. Do you have any ideas?”

“Personal gestures are best,” Michael said. “But you don’t know her.”

“No. I must do some sleuthing. Until then, perhaps I could send both flowers and candy. Even if they aren’t her favorites, they will let her know I’m thinking of her and am wholly repentant about it.”

Michael nodded thoughtfully. “Her cousin might be an obstacle.”

Phillip sank back down in the armchair he’d vacated a moment ago. Her cousin, Miss Stafford, had indeed glared all manner of daggers at Phillip. He clearly fell terribly short of being a paragon like his brother.

Was his inability to be a smooth-talking charmer the reason no one saw Phillip for anything other than a way to marry into the ducal family?

He leaped to his feet again. “I must win them both over—probably her parents, as well, who must not think too kindly of a person who throws their daughter in the river.” A formidable task to be sure, but Phillip had never shrunk from a worthwhile challenge.

“Won’t matter. She won’t give you the time of day.”

Phillip straightened his spine. “She will.”

Michael choked. “Never. You had your chance. Missed it.”

“That will not be my only opportunity.” With a reckless bravado, Phillip added, “I will win her love.”

“Would you care to bet?” Michael’s eyes glittered.

“No. I won’t bet on a lady.”

Michael shrugged. “She won’t have you.”

“I will be persuasive.”

“You?” Michael laughed.

Phillip gritted his teeth. He’d attracted female company in the past—for reasons other than his status. He could do it again if he really tried. “Yes. She is worth it.”

“Worth it? Perhaps. But it’s a lost cause.”

His dismissive attitude raised the hackles on Phillip’s neck. “I will marry her.”

Michael choked, coughed, and laughed. “You don’t know her.”

Phillip struggled against feelings he didn’t entirely understand. “I know enough about her to know that I want her. I’ve never wanted anyone like this.”

“I wager anything you name that she won’t have you.”

With growing ire and a sudden need to prove himself, Phillip stated, “Very well. If I win, you must . . .” He considered. What would be costly to Michael? His horses gave him no small measure of pride. He didn’t want to take any of Michael’s prize stock, but perhaps something a bit more fun. “You must ride a mule in Hyde Park during the promenade.”

Michael frowned. “I’d rather die than ride a mule.”

“Are you willing to recant, then?”

“No.” Michael jutted out his chin. “I accept your wager.” He considered. “If she refuses your proposal, you muck out my stables.”

Phillip blanched. He had never done such a thing. It would be backbreaking and smelly and humiliating. And if his family found out he’d done something so far below his standing, they’d take him to task. But he wouldn’t have to do it; he would win. He straightened his shoulders. “Done.”

“Wedding must be before the end of the Season.”

“Agreed.” If he couldn’t win her by Season’s end, he had little chance anyway. Angry for a reason he couldn’t quite identify, Phillip stared into the fire, which had died down to a jutting tongue behind the charred log. Silence stretched until finally Phillip glanced at Michael. His friend eyed him silently, that same assessing look he gave to purebreds to determine their worth.

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