Wedding Wagers(9)

By: Donna Hatch

Chewing the candy, Meredith picked up a pillow and hugged it. “I’m not so naïve as to believe my happiness rests on another or that romantic love is required for a successful match. I will be content with an honorable man, if any still exists, and a home of my own. Perhaps I should go back to Sussex and marry Grandmother’s vicar.”

“Nonsense,” cried Annabel. “A stuffy man like that is not for you.”

“At least I would have no delusions about him being in love with me.” Meredith hugged the pillow harder and savored the sweet candy in her mouth.

Annabel sat forward. “Don’t give up just yet, Merry. You promised to stay with me the whole Season.”

“Yes, I did. But since a love match is not in the stars for me, I shall employ my newfound powers of discernment to help others.”

A maid entered carrying the tea service and plates of refreshment. After setting the tray on a nearby table, the maid bobbed a curtsey and soundlessly left the room. A second maid arrived with the flowers arranged in a vase and set it on a sideboard table. The flowers smiled from their crystal vase.

“I cannot like your goal of coming between couples, Meredith, but I have to admit, you were quite right about Mr. Wynn.” Aunt Paulette inspected the plate of scones and biscuits.

Annabel also leaned forward to select a scone. “And about that peacock trying to woo my friend Charlotte.”

Meredith nodded slowly. “I’m only grateful they were spared. And by the way, your handsome Mr. Barrett is not to be trusted either. He strikes me as a rake of the worst kind, just as you said.”

Aunt Paulette’s hand froze midway to her mouth. “Mr. Tristan Barrett? Oh, yes, indeed, he does have a wild reputation. He might be wealthy and well connected, but no one that rakish will do, Annabel. I hope you know that.”

Annabel’s expression turned almost sullen. “I know, I know. But he’s so . . .”

“By all means, admire him like a piece of fine art, but don’t fall for him,” Meredith said firmly.

Annabel let out a huff. “But what if gossip has it wrong about him just like it was wrong about you? I mean, you didn’t actually do anything truly bad, and if no one had discovered that you had eloped, you wouldn’t be considered ruined.”

Meredith blanched at the word that had been flung at her, beating her down like a battering ram, almost constantly for years. “I did do something wrong: I believed the lies of a handsome face.” Twice, but few besides Grandmother knew about the second one. At least she had learned her lesson enough not to attempt an elopement a second time.

Aunt Paulette handed teacups around. “No need to bring up the past. We will focus on the future for you both. Promise me you won’t get so jaded that you find faults that aren’t there, Meredith.”

“I will try, Aunt. And I will try not to be such a failure.”

Seven years had failed to completely heal the hurt of lies and betrayal or restore her faith in herself or her trust in gentlemen in general. Nor had it yielded her parents’ forgiveness. But if she could protect others from her own folly, she would feel a measure of satisfaction. That would have to be enough.

“Now, now,” Aunt Paulette said. “One miscalculation does not mean you are no longer a candidate for a love match. If you are willing to forgive Mr. Partridge for his overzealous attempts to get your attention, you might consider allowing him to court you.”

Meredith huffed a laugh. “No one of his status would align himself with someone of my background and the scandal attached to me.”

“No one here knows of that,” Aunt Paulette said in a soothing voice. “And surely everyone in Loughborough has forgotten all about it.”

“Things like that have a way of resurfacing,” Meredith said miserably. “Besides, nothing will change the fact that my father is in trade. That disqualifies me from anyone lofty—unless they need my dowry.”

“Don’t be so sure, my dear cynic. Keep an open mind and an open heart, and you might be surprised what delightful people will come into your life. Now, as far as tonight, our hostess is Lady Daubrey—she’s such a dear. She will have a sumptuous dinner. I’m certain all the gentlemen present will be of the very best ton.”

“Aunt,” Meredith interrupted, “if the subject of my dowry comes up at all, could we imply that it’s very modest?”

“But my dear, to make an advantageous match—”

“I must avoid fortune hunters, mustn’t I?” Meredith interjected.

Aunt Paulette frowned thoughtfully. “Well . . . er . . . yes, but—”

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