Fifteen servants wearing the traditional blue and silver livery of the Earl of Cameron left Havenhurst at dawn on the same day. All of them carried identical, urgent messages that Lady Elizabeth's uncle, Mr. Julius Cameron, had directed them to deliver at fifteen homes throughout England.
The recipients of these messages all had only one thing in common: They had once offered for Lady Elizabeth's hand in marriage.
All fifteen of these gentlemen, upon reading the message, exhibited shock at its contents. Some of them were incredulous, others derisive, and still others cruelly satisfied. Twelve of them promptly wrote out replies declining Julius Cameron's outrageous suggestion, then they hurried off in search of friends with whom they could share this unsurpassed, delicious piece of incredible gossip.
Three of the recipients reacted differently.
Lord John Marchman had just returned from his favorite daily pastime of hunting when the Havenhurst servant arrived at his home, and a footman brought him the message. "I'll be damned," he breathed as he read. The message stated that Mr. Julius Cameron was desirous of seeing his niece, Lady Elizabeth Cameron, suitably and immediately wed. To that end, Mr. Cameron said he would now be willing to reconsider John's previously rejected offer for Lady Elizabeth's hand. Cognizant of the year and a half that had passed since they had been in each other's company, Julius Cameron volunteered to send his niece, properly chaperoned, to spend a sennight with John so that they might "renew their acquaintance."
Unable to believe what he was reading, Lord Marchman paced the floor and read the entire message twice more. "I'll be damned," he said again. Raking a hand through his sandy hair, he glanced distractedly at the wall beside him, which was completely covered with his most prized possessions-the heads of the animals he'd hunted in Europe and abroad. A moose stared back at him through glazed eyes; beside it a wild boar snarled. Reaching up, he scratched the moose behind its antlers in an affectionate, if ludicrous, gesture that expressed his gratitude for the splendid day of hunting that particular prize had afforded him.
A vision of Elizabeth Cameron danced enchantingly before his eyes-an incredibly lovely face with green eyes, cameo skin, and soft smiling lips. A year and a half ago, when he'd met her, he'd thought her the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. After meeting her only twice he'd been so taken with the charming, unaffected seventeen-year-old girl that he'd dashed off to her brother and offered for her, only to be coldly rejected.
Evidently Elizabeth's uncle, who was now her guardian, judged John by different standards.
Perhaps the lovely Lady Elizabeth herself had been behind this decision; perhaps their two meetings in the park had meant as much to her as they had to him.
Getting up, John wandered over to the third wall, which held a variety of fishing poles, and thoughtfully selected one. The trout would be biting this afternoon, he decided as he remembered Elizabeth's magnificent honey-colored hair. Her hair had glistened in the sunlight, reminding him of the shimmering scales of a beautiful trout as it breaks the water. The analogy seemed so perfect and so poetic that Lord Marchman stopped, spellbound by his own phrasing, and put the fishing pole down. He would compliment Elizabeth's hair in exactly those words, he decided, when he accepted her uncle's offer and she came to his home next month.
Sir Francis Belhaven, the fourteenth recipient of Julius Cameron's message, read it while sitting in his bedchamber wrapped in a satin dressing gown, his mistress naked and waiting for him in his bed across the room.
"Francis, darling," she purred, raking her long fingernails down the satin sheets, "what's important enough about that message to keep you over there instead of here?"
He looked up and frowned at the sound her nails were making. "Don't scratch the sheets, love," he said. "They cost 30 pounds apiece."
"If you cared about me," she countered, careful not to sound as if she was whining, "you wouldn't give a thought to the cost." Francis Belhaven was so tightfisted that there were times Eloise wondered if marrying him would gain her more than a gown or two a year.
"If you cared about me," he countered smoothly, "you'd be more careful with my coin."
At five and forty Francis Belhaven had never been married, but he'd never lacked for feminine companionship. He enjoyed women immensely-their bodies, their faces, their bodies. . .
Now, however, he needed a legitimate heir, and for that he needed a wife. During the last year he'd been giving a good deal of thought to his rather stringent requirements for the lucky young lady he would eventually choose. He wanted a young wife as well as a beautiful wife with money of her own so she wouldn't squander his.
Glancing up from Julius's message, he gazed hungrily at Eloise's breasts and mentally added a new requirement for his future wife: She must be understanding about his sensual appetite and his need for variety on his sexual menu. It would not do for her to pucker up like a prune merely because he was involved in one trivial little affair or another. At the age of forty-five, he had no intention of being ruled by some chit with pious notions of morality and fidelity.
A vision of Elizabeth Cameron was superimposed against his naked mistress. What a lush little beauty she'd been when he'd offered for her nearly two years ago. Her breasts had been ripe, her waist tiny, her face. . . unforgettable. Her fortune. . . adequate. Since then gossip had it that she was practically destitute after her brother's mysterious disappearance, but her uncle had indicated that she would bring a sizable dowry, which meant the gossip was as wrong as always.
Arising, he walked over to the bed and sat down beside Eloise. Caressingly he laid a hand on her hip, but he reached for the bell pull with his other hand. "A moment, my darling," he said as a servant rushed into the bedchamber. He handed over the note and said, "Instruct my secretary to send an affirmative reply."
The last invitation was forwarded from Ian Thornton's London town house to Montmayne, his country estate, where it appeared on his desk among a mountain of business and social correspondence awaiting his attention. Ian opened Julius Cameron's missive while he was in the midst of rapid-fire dictation to his new secretary, and he did not take nearly so long to make a decision as Lord John Marchman or Sir Francis Belhaven.
He stared at it in utter disbelief while his secretary, Peters, who'd only been with him for a fortnight, muttered a silent prayer of gratitude for the break and continued scribbling as fast as he could, trying futilely to catch up with his employer's dictation.