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Laurel Ames

“That will be a pure waste of your talents.”

She looked inquiringly at him.

“I mean, unless you marry yourself,” he hastened to add.

“That will not happen,” Rose said, still sorting out what talents he was talking about.

“London is full of men who will fall in love with such a face as yours, even if you have no fortune.”

“As it happens I have just as large a portion as Stanley, from my mother. And therein lies the problem.”

“Problem?” Bennet gave her a blank look. “Beauty and fortune, not to mention a good seat and excellent conversation.”

Rose did not blush at his mention of her seat and cast him a speculative look. “How would I ever know if a man wanted me for my conversation or my face, or even my seat, so long as the money is in the way? No, I will not marry. I feel I can go on quite well myself. And if Bristol is too dull, in a few years I shall be old enough to set up a horse farm for myself.”

“You will never be old enough to do that. And you can be sure of your man if he has an equal or better fortune,” Bennet replied with a satisfied smile.

“Perhaps I prefer to maintain my independence.” Rose eased Gallant into a canter, thinking to interrupt the conversation.

“Perhaps he would let you,” Bennet said, matching Chaos’s stride to Gallant’s and riding dangerously close to her side so as not to have to shout. “Not every man insists on taking control of his wife’s money.”

“It is not a worry I will have. I will not marry and that is that,” Rose said, shaking her head. She brought the animal back to a more sedate trot with no more than a small tug on the reins.

“After I have removed every impediment?” Bennet asked with a grin.

“Not every one. I do not like men,” she said, slowing Gallant to a walk.

“All men?” he asked in surprise as he trotted past her.

“All the ones I have had occasion to meet.”

“And how many is that?” Bennet teased, pulling up his horse to try to intercept the gaze Rose resolutely directed straight ahead.

“Too many.”

“I see. What a fortunate circumstance, then,” he said as Rose rode past him.

His pause caused her to look around at him. “What is?”

His blue eyes glittered with mischief. “Why, I too have been pursued by fortune hunters until I confess I am quite marriage-shy myself. I too have decided never to marry.”

“That seems an odd coincidence.” Rose pursed her lips.

“Yes, it does to me as well, but there you have it. Since we are both confirmed bachelors, there is no impediment to our friendship.”

“Friendship? I can think of one.”

“Look, your brother is stealing a march on us. Race you to the edge of the park.”

Rose spurred her horse to try to overtake Bennet before he came up with Stanley. In at least one feature the two men were alike. They knew when to run away from an argument they were destined to lose.

“I have not had such a ride since hunting season,” Stanley said, patting Victor’s steaming neck and letting the horse cavort playfully, before bringing it down to a walk beside Bennet and Rose.

“You must make yourself free of my stables whenever you have time to ride. You can see they need the exercise.” Addressing Stanley, he added, “I have also put your name down as my guest at White’s and Boudle’s, so feel free to drop in there when in need of some solitude, or some companionship.”

“That is most kind of you,” Stanley said sincerely. “I fear we shall not be in town long enough to take advantage of so much hospitality.”

“You must at least stay for my sister’s coming-of-age party. She and Mother would be pleased to have family there. Oh, and I had meant to tell you, my ship Celestine is in port and the cabins are not booked. I beg you to make use of them if France or Italy is your destination. Otherwise they would travel empty.”

“Vamer, I am overwhelmed. I will pay for passage, of course.”

“I had offered rooms at Varner house but Rose would not hear of it. We get so little company.”

“But you have done so much,” Stanley said. “You must come visit us at Wall when we return. We shall be back in time for hunting season.”

“I should be delighted.” Bennet smiled at Rose in that self-satisfied way that said he had charmed her brother completely.

By the time they returned to the hotel Bennet’s groom was back to take charge of the horses, leaving Bennet free to dine with Stanley at White’s, and, Rose presumed, introduce him to his cronies. She went upstairs, shaking her head and plotting how to get the better of Bennet Varner. He was a provoking rogue. She supposed she should have expected some sophistication from a London male, but intelligence had been a surprise, though he masked it well enough. She had never known a man like him, and found to her surprise that she was looking forward to a third meeting just to match wits with him again.

“Where is Stanley?” Alice asked from the settee as Rose whisked into the parlor that was common to their two suites.

“Gone off with Bennet Varner to his club. Do you feel well enough to shop? We are invited to a ball at Varner House, and I have my doubts that I own anything elegant enough to do the occasion justice.”

“Stanley was going to take me shopping.”

“But if he goes with you it will take forever,” Rose said, unbuttoning the frogs of her jacket. “You know he cannot make up his mind about such things. Then he gives those heavy sighs when he is tired of waiting for you.”

Alice frowned in thought. “I suppose we could make a start. I shall need some new gowns.”

“Also we may be here some few days until the Celes-tine is ready to sail.” Rose opened the door into her bedroom and her maid, Cynthie, took her coat.

“Then we are going?” Alice asked with a pout.

“Of course,” Rose said. “What made you think we were not?”

“Stanley.” Alice followed Rose into her bedroom. “He said if I was meaning to be sick for days on end I might as well do it at home.”

Since Rose had had some such thoughts herself, she felt a little guilty at Alice’s tearful reply. “Don’t worry. I will bring Stanley up to scratch.” Rose selected a buff walking dress, and stepped out of her riding skirt. “I have been promised Europe and I mean to see it. I have no intention of wasting the whole season here in London.”

“But I never had a London season. Neither did you, if it comes to that. Would it be so awful to stay just a few weeks?”

“If we do not embark for France within a fortnight I shall return to Wall or Bristol,” Rose vowed, emerging from the top of the dress.

“But why are you so dead set against London?”

“Because I might meet...any number of fribbles and fops. You know I have no patience with such men.” Rose adjusted her hair in the mirror and glanced at Alice to see if she believed her.

Alice shrugged and went for her reticule and pelisse while Rose sent Cynthie to tell Martin to find them a hack. Stanley had caviled at paying passage for four servants—his valet, two maids and a groom—especially when there would be no horses involved. But Rose had held out for Martin’s quick usefulness as a footman and general dogsbody and finally prevailed when Alice begged them to stop arguing over so trivial a matter.
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