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Wedding Wagers

By:Donna Hatch

Donna Hatch & Heather B. Moore & Michele Paige Holmes

(Timeless Regency Collection Book 11)

Growing up the son of a duke had provided a few advantages, but being  the brother of a duke came with definite challenges-especially if that  brother was the famed Duke of Suttenberg, one of the most respected men  in England and therefore every season's most eligible bachelor, a  paragon. Still, Phillip was nothing if not optimistic. Surely some young  lady with discerning taste would view Phillip as every bit as  desirable.

Phillip attempted to smile at the young lady twittering about how very  pleased she was to meet him, but she never once looked him in the eye.  Which was a shame, really, because she missed out on his handsome face  and the dimple that so many women found irresistible.

". . . hear you are an excellent dancer, Your Grace, and-"

Of course. Phillip should have known. He held up a hand to stop the  chatter. "Pardon me, but it seems you have me confused with my brother."

". . . and I absolutely adore dancing . . . what?" She blinked, looking at him for the first time.

"I am Phillip Partridge, the duke's brother."

Honestly, if one more girl threw herself at Phillip because she wanted  to be part of the Suttenberg ducal family-or because she mistook him for  the duke, rather than because of the good looks and charm Phillip  possessed in spades-he would put out an eye.

Since he had no desire to start sporting an eye patch-not that he  couldn't pull it off with style, but it sounded deuced painful-he  managed a polite, curt bow and left before she asked him to introduce  her to his so-much-more-eligible brother, the one with the title.

Looking over the heads in the ballroom, he spotted Michael Cavenleigh's  blond hair in the crowd. Phillip threaded through scores of ladies  scented like flowers, dressed in cream or white silk, and flirting with  gentlemen in brocade and superfine who would rather be at a card table.

Upon reaching his friend's side, Phillip jerked his head toward the  door. "I believe I'll accept Tristan Barrett's invitation to visit  Vauxhall Gardens."

Michael lifted a brow.

"It's fine weather for an outdoor lark." Did he sound desperate?

A corner of Michael's lip twitched. His normally taciturn friend seemed  even less talkative than usual tonight, but that smirk revealed his  awareness of Phillip's decision to make a strategic retreat.

Phillip tried again. "Barrett desires several gentlemen  present-something about making sure there are enough male prospects for  all the young ladies he has invited. Care to join me?" Not that Phillip  had given the outing much thought until now, mind you.

A small huff that might have been a suppressed laugh escaped Michael's  lips. With a glance at the young lady who'd been batting her eyelashes  at him, Michael bowed his head. "It seems I am needed elsewhere. Good  evening."

Phillip made a note to express his gratitude to his friend. For now, he contented himself with calling for his carriage.

"And where do you think you are going, young man?" His mother stood with  all the dignity and authority of a duchess, for obvious reasons, and  glared at him, also for obvious reasons.

Phillip inclined his head in a loose bow to the duchess. "Good evening, Mother."

"Don't you ‘good evening' me. You promised you'd be attentive tonight."  She snapped her fan shut and pointed it at him as though she were a foot  taller than him rather than the other way around. How such a diminutive  lady could be so commanding remained a mystery.

Phillip put on his most conciliatory smile. "I danced a set." And fended  off three girls who implied they'd be wonderful wives to a member of a  ducal family-or to the duke himself if he would kindly introduce  them-but that did not bear mentioning. "However, I have other  invitations this evening, as I am sure you do. Perhaps some of them will  be less crowded."

"The Season is in full swing. All of the soirees are crowded." She  touched her bandeau as if to assure herself it remained in place. The  white feather contrasted with dark hair untouched by gray.

"Some parties are more crowded than others," he said wryly.

His mother looked over Phillip's shoulder at Michael. Her smile always  softened for him, especially since he'd lost his fiancée in a tragic  accident. "Why, Mr. Cavenleigh. Good evening."

"Your Grace." Michael bowed.

"How are things at your stable?" she asked. "Still breeding champions?"

"Indeed, mum."

"Come for dinner, won't you?"         



"Thank you." Michael bowed again.

Phillip jumped back into the conversation, as it were. "Good evening,  Mother. I hope you have a pleasant time." Phillip inclined his head  again and headed for the door.

"Phillip." His brother's voice stopped him. Hadn't he been across the room a moment ago?

Phillip swung back to greet His Grace, the Duke of Suttenberg, whose  ducal poise cracked long enough to smile. Suttenberg's pale shock of  hair in front, so starkly contrasting with the rest of his dark hair,  seemed lighter than usual-almost white. Of course, everyone thought the  unusual birthmark striking and so fitting for the newest in a long line  of dukes.

Phillip's matching blond streak served as a glaring reminder that he  should be targeted for his connections-not for his dashing good looks,  intellect, and charm. All these he possessed in spades, of course.

"Suttenberg." Phillip couldn't help but grin at his brother. It wasn't  really Suttenberg's fault he'd been born first and had both the title  and the perfectionist instincts to make him superior in every way to a  mortal younger brother. Despite common opinion, Suttenberg hadn't always  been so perfect. As boys, they'd gotten into their share of scrapes  together. Father's untimely death had changed everything.

Phillip never wanted the burden of a title. He sought a girl who  actually saw him and not merely a fat purse or the means to climb the  slippery social ladder. Being the younger brother of a duke, a paragon  of perfection, made that difficult. Still, Phillip refused to let his  brother's brilliance blind every woman alive. Surely somewhere existed a  lady of substance, someone extraordinary, who would see Phillip for the  man he was. He would find her, even if it took years, and he would make  her his own.

Suttenberg clapped a hand on Phillip shoulder. "I haven't seen you in a fortnight, little brother."

Phillip shrugged. "We've both been busy. You with Parliament, and I . .  ." He jabbed a finger over his shoulder at Michael. "Cavenleigh Stables  needed my wisdom moving this year's batch to Tattersall's."

Michael snorted, but Phillip didn't give him the satisfaction of looking at him.

"Ah, yes. I would enjoy looking over your new stock," Suttenberg said to Michael.

"I'd be honored," Michael said. For a man of few words, he usually said everything right.

"Are you leaving so soon?" Suttenberg's gaze returned to Phillip.

"We have young ladies to meet elsewhere," Phillip said. "It's a chore to  be so much in demand. Of course, you wouldn't know." He grinned.

Suttenberg huffed a laugh. "I know nothing of demands."

Phillip shook his head mournfully. "You really ought not be such a wastrel, you know. People are starting to talk."

Mirroring Phillip's expression, Suttenberg nodded. "A challenge, to be sure, but I'll make an attempt."

Phillip glanced at Michael, waiting patiently for him by the door to the  great hall, and said to his brother, "Good night, Duke."

"Good night, little brother." A grin came with the term of endearment, since they stood at equal height.

Waving over his shoulder, Phillip headed for the great hall. After they  retrieved their hats, they went out into the night. Perhaps Vauxhall  Gardens would produce an unusual lady of true character and substance  who would see him for the man he was, a man who offered more than a  powerful family connection.

Meredith Brown stood in the small river park several feet away from the  riverbank, clutching her cloak and questioning her sanity. Surely there  were better ways to spend the evening than taking a boat across an  enormous, dirty, and somewhat dangerous river as the tide came in. The  sinking sun offered little warmth, and a chill wind blew off the Thames.  Incoming tide rushed through the arches below the nearest bridge and  lapped hungrily at the banks, gurgling like some live beast. Little  boats filled with passengers bobbed while ferrymen battled against  currents, making slow progress toward the far bank.

"Cheer up, Merry."

Meredith jumped. She pressed a hand over her chest and tried to breathe.  "Gracious, but you gave me a scare." She frowned at her cousin, Annabel  Stafford.

"This will be fun," Annabel said. "They call it Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens for a reason."

"I'm not certain the method of reaching the gardens is safe."

"You can't always play it safe, Merry. Sometimes the best things happen  when you take a chance." Annabel tucked a wayward auburn curl back into  her bonnet, a stylish creation that sported more flowers than Uncle's  garden.