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Stow-on-the-Wold, Glouchestershire

September, 1813

The wedding party exited the small church to a chorus of cheers and loud huzzahs as the assembled crowd showered them with grain and flower petals. Everyone in the village had turned out for the event, despite the cool, insistent breeze that ruffled the hems of skirts and threatened to tug hats from heads. No one seemed to mind the inclement weather, for the bride's radiant smile more than made up for the lack of sunshine.

The Dowager Duchess of Wexcombe gave up fretting over the plumes in her turban; they were a lost cause on such a blustery day. She pulled her velvet cloak more closely against her thin frame, guarding against any more incursions by that dratted wind. Hmph. Kit and Nicholas deserved a sunny day for their nuptials, especially after all they had been through. Well, beggars could not be choosers. She sighed. They were married at last, and blissfully happy. That was all that mattered.

Next to her, her grandson, the Duke of Wexcombe, pulled his curly brimmed beaver more firmly onto his brow, then brushed an errant petal from the sleeve of his forest green superfine.

" 'Pon rep, Wexcombe, this is a wedding, not a funeral," the dowager declared with asperity. "You're as grumpy as a tiger with a toothache."

"Forgive me, Grandmama, if I do not share your enthusiasm," the duke replied in arid tones. "I realize you are partial to the chit, but this marriage is hardly cause for celebration."

"You are not happy for your cousin?"

Wexcombe tugged at the cuff of one sleeve. "I would have preferred to see Bainbridge make a more suitable match."

She arched a knowing eyebrow at him. "Like Lady Elizabeth?"

"No, Elizabeth proved far too high strung for-" The duke twitched as though he'd been stung. His eyes widened. "Wait a moment. How did you"

The dowager twitched at the front edge of her cloak. "You need not look so surprised, my boy. I know very well that you and Caroline were scheming to throw that vain, simpering nincompoop at Bainbridge's head. I overheard the two of you plotting together months ago."

Storm clouds gathered on the duke's brow. "Do you mean to tell me that this was your idea?" he asked, clearly outraged. "That you actually arranged it?"

The dowager allowed herself a small, satisfied smile. "Oh, pish. You give me far too much credit, Wexcombe; I merely brought the two of them together. Well, I suppose I had to set them straight after your interference, but-"

The duke's lips compressed in a thin line. "And what part did Mrs. Mallory play in this?"

"She knew nothing about it," the dowager replied serenely. "Although I almost let it slip after that dratted physician dosed me with laudanum. Thankfully, she never pressed me for an explanation."

A stunned expression crossed Wexcombe's narrow face. "Elizabeth. That was the reason you took her to task. You wanted to chase her off."

"Well, I could not very well sit by and allow her to ruin things. Another day or so and she would have tricked Bainbridge into compromising her. That was your plan, I believe."

He flushed. "You had no right to meddle, Grandmama."

"Poppycock. I was not about to allow you to maneuver Bainbridge into a cold-blooded marriage simply to put an end to his rakehell ways and save you any further embarrassment. Lud, Wexcombe, any more of this high-handed behavior and you will need to have your ducal coronet stretched to fit over your enlarged head."

The duke pinched the bridge of his nose. "But why Mrs. Mallory? Could you not have set your sights on someone more suitable?"

"Suitable?" guffawed the dowager. "I always thought you were pig-headed, Wexcombe, but I never thought you were blind. Why, I knew from the moment I met Kit that that she and Nicholas were perfect for each other."

"I fail to see-"

"Exactly." She waved an impatient hand. "I wanted to see Bainbridge settled, but with a woman he loved. Look at them, Wexcombe. Do you not agree that they were meant for each other?"

The two of them turned to watch the bride and groom climb into the carriage; the couple had eyes only for each other. Bainbridge raised Kit's hand to his lips, then turned it over and pressed a kiss to the exposed skin of her wrist. The young lady flushed with pleasure.

"Now," prodded the dowager, "you must at least admit that you were mistaken in your initial impression of Kit's character."

The duke rolled his eyes. "Oh, very well."

"And that you were wrong to treat her with such contempt."

His mouth tightened. "I did what I thought necessary."

The dowager bristled. "Telling Bainbridge that cock-and-bull story of Kit being after my money, then turning around and telling tales out of school to the poor girl-the very idea. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"The chit came from a questionable background, and Bainbridge seemed unreasonably fascinated. I had every right to be alarmed. For that matter, I still have reason to believe he made the wrong choice."

"Oh, stop being such a pompous ass, boy. Bainbridge deserves a measure of contentment, and Kit makes him happy. She is a lovely girl. Pluck to the backbone. She will keep him on his toes."

The carriage began to rumble away, accompanied by the cheers of the assembled villagers. The dowager stood in the churchyard and waved until the equipage disappeared from view.

"Now that this is over," sighed the duke, "I trust you will retire gracefully."

"I have been thinking about that," the dowager replied, tapping a gloved finger against her cheek. "I rather like the role of matchmaker. Perhaps I should turn my attention to your youngest brother, Nigel, or even Lady Elizabeth, although I might be hard pressed to find someone willing to marry a shrew. And since I will be at the dower house for a good portion of the year, I will have ample opportunity to arrange fine matches for Emma and Nathaniel when they come of age. This sounds rather promising, would you not agree?"

"Good God!" blustered the duke, horrified.

The dowager chuckled. Sometimes everything did turn out for the best.

Chapter Thirteen | A Reckless Bargain |