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Laurel Ames

Rose wondered if he had deviated from his usual black riding jacket for her benefit. “Did he also tell you he planned to have such a bad head from staying out late drinking that he would not be able to sit a horse today?”

“No, I surmised that myself,” Bennet said proudly.

“You were with him, then?” Rose asked as she steered her horse through traffic.

“Yes, for part of the evening. I left him around midnight.”

“I cannot say that I like Stanley taking up gambling and drinking. I know all men do it, but that does not make it a safe pastime.”

“If you are worried that he will get into fast company, I assure you my friends would never fleece a guest of mine.” Chaos gave a little jump at a bright red curricle, but Bennet’s grip turned to iron and brought the animal under control. The man’s leg muscles bulged tautly under his buff riding breeches.

“You have a high opinion of your friends, sir. I shall reserve mine until I meet them.”

“Hah, I see. A recommendation from me is worthless, as you have decided to mistrust me.”

Rose stared at him to have her mind read so accurately, then turned her attention back to the last thoroughfare to separate them from their destination.

“I have surprised you, haven’t I?” Bennet prodded as they approached Hyde Park.

“Yes. As I was about to say yesterday when you galloped away to avoid the remark, you are not at all trustworthy.”

“Yes, when you said you could think of one reason we could not be friends. I saw the barb coming so thought I would avoid it until I could think of a rejoinder.”

Rose laughed. “You are a jump ahead of me today, and yes, you did surprise me. It will not happen again,” she assured him as she urged Gallant into a trot.

“That I can believe. Why do you not trust me? And do not waste time dissembling.”

Rose looked at Bennet thoughtfully. He was riding carelessly with both reins gathered in one hand and not paying any obvious attention to his horse, yet the beast was minding his subtle leg signals much better than yesterday. It struck her that Bennet rode as naturally as a soldier, and her experience of soldiers should make her dislike him. But she could not think of a clear reason to do so. She urged Gallant into a canter, using Bennet’s own trick against him. The horses would be used to having a brisk canter as soon as they got to the park, would expect it if they rode here again, she thought. Why did she not trust Bennet Varner? At the end of fifteen minutes and on the other side of the vast park she was ready to bring her mount down to a walk again and answer him, even if it meant never riding here with him again.

“All of this, the horses, your kindness to Stanley, the offer of your ship, why?”

“I did not think courtesy required a reason,” Bennet replied, his dark eyebrows arched in surprise over those innocent blue eyes of his.

“You have been more than courteous, you have been kind in the extreme, and charming enough to allay the suspicions of a brother, who though dense around women, can generally take the measure of a man.”

“Hah. Is that a compliment or an accusation?”

“You decide. It is your motivation that is suspect.”

“I’ll take it as a compliment. My motivation is quite simple. I am, in the general way, bored silly by society and the women thrown at my head by a well-meaning mother and sister who think it is high time I married. To encounter a woman who is no danger to me is refreshing in the extreme. That is why I thought we could be friends, because I am no danger to you, either.”

Rose stared at him and felt herself smiling at those laughing eyes. If he was not telling the truth, his performance at least deserved the compliment of her pretense of belief.

“And something else,” he added.

“What?” she asked, wishing she could really have such a friendship.

“I enjoy jousting with you. Do you know how rare it is to find someone able to hold her own in an argument?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“So there you have it. I am in some need of companionship of the abrasive kind, someone who does not agree with me at every turn just because I am as rich as Croesus.”

“You are not.”

“Not what?”

“As rich as Croesus.”

“How would you know?”

“If you were you would hire a man of business and not be at all involved in trade.” Rose lifted her chin as though his vocation mattered to her.

“It is precisely because I am involved in trade that I am so rich.”

“No matter how much your sister would like it to be otherwise?” she chided.

“Rose, don’t tell me you won’t countenance an acquaintance with a cit I had not thought you so stuffy.”

“On the contrary,” Rose said, deciding to change her tack, “I regard your involvement in trade to be the most stable thing about you. It is your avocation I disapprove of.”

“Gambling? I assure you I—”

“No! Gammoning people into thinking you a charming, empty-headed fellow when in truth...”

“In truth, what?” he prompted with a grin.

“I haven’t figured that out precisely, but I will.”

“I shall anticipate the moment. Bring sweet Alice to tea this afternoon if you wish to extend your study of my character. Bring Wall, too, if you can manage it. Mother wants to meet him, even though he is safely married.”

“Is she looking for a husband for Harriet?”

“Always. I scared off one suitor by challenging him to a duel. The offers since then have not been as forthcoming.”

“I should think not, if they are in danger of being shot.”

“Actually, I was the one who was punctured. It was a pure waste of my claret I should have let him carry Harriet off to Yorkshire.”

“That is a very hard thing to say of your own sister. How old was she?”


“Not old enough to know her own mind.”

“Old enough to know better than to get involved with a man like Foy.”

Rose halted her mount and pretended to be checking the tightness of the girth. Bennet looked back in some concern, dismounted and went to help her down. “What is it?”
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