To Capture a Duke's Heart(7)

By: Jennifer McNare


“So serious, Your Grace. If I didn’t know better I might wonder if you had a vested interest in the matter.” He leaned forward, lowering his voice to an exaggerated whisper. “Or,” he suggested with a teasing smile, “is it that you are secretly disappointed to think I might soon be off the market?”

The duchess uttered a very unladylike snort. “Impertinent scamp,” she chided, rolling her eyes. “Now cease your prevaricating and answer the question.”

“Fine,” he relented. Straightening, he rested his arm casually atop the back of her chair. “If you must know, the answer is no. I have not offered for her.” He was considering it, however.

Her eyes narrowed. “But you are considering it?” she questioned as if she’d read his very thoughts.

“Perhaps,” he hedged.

“You haven’t feelings for the girl, have you?” She scrutinized his expression, her brown eyes assessing.

“Feelings?” The question caught him off guard.

She studied him a moment longer, her features visibly relaxing. “No, I thought not.”

He shrugged indifferently. “Since when are feelings a prerequisite to marriage?”

“Regrettably they are not, for that is the world in which we live,” she replied in a flat, matter of fact tone. “Nonetheless, Cecelia is not the woman for you.”

“No?”

“No. She is too much like her mother. You deserve better.”

Her mother? He cocked his head to the side, his expression bemused. “I thought that you and Lady Elingsford were friends.”

“I tolerate her,” Agatha replied with another dismissive wave of her gloved fingertips, “there’s a difference.”

“Ah.”

“Cecelia’s a pretty little thing, I’ll give you that, but like her mother the gel is an utter peagoose and shallow as a wash bowl.”

Shallow as a washbowl? He resisted the urge to chuckle aloud for Agatha was never one to mince words.

“I’ve known you since you were a babe in leading strings, my boy, and I can assure you that despite her impeccable lineage the girl is not worthy of you,” she continued, eyeing him steadily. “Mark my words, Gabriel. Make her your duchess and you will regret that decision for years to come, for she will undoubtedly bore you to tears within a fortnight.” Her expression softened then. “You, my dear, need a woman who possesses not only an intelligent mind, but an impassioned spirit. You need a woman who will not only spark, but hold your interest, a woman who will challenge and excite you, someone who won’t simply fade into the wallpaper once you’re wed.”

“I see,” he replied thoughtfully. “Perhaps I should simply drop to bended knee right here and now then, for I can think of no one who demonstrates such qualities more so than you, Your Grace.” He winked playfully and flashed a rakish grin. “However, I fear that the rather significant difference in our ages may cause quite a stir amongst the ton.”

“Insolent pup,” she scolded, though a smile tugged at the corners of her rouged lips and a laughing twinkle lit her warm brown eyes. “You’re fortunate I’ve such a fondness for you.”

“Indeed I am.” He spoke with complete sincerity now. “And all jesting aside, I promise to take your advice into consideration, Your Grace. You have my word.”

The duchess patted his hand affectionately, nodding in approval. “You needn’t settle for commonplace, Gabriel, for there is a woman out there who’s worthy of you. You simply need to find her.”

“I vow I shall keep my eyes peeled.”

“Oh and by the by, I saw the way Beckford’s wife was ogling you earlier,” she stated with a derisive sniff.

Gabriel’s brows drew together in surprise. “God’s teeth, is there anything that escapes your notice?”

“Very little,” she replied unflappably. “And you would do well to stay clear of her this weekend, for she is a vile creature and determined, I’ve heard, to add your name to her list of conquests.”

Unfortunately Gabriel was well aware of Maryanne Houghton’s interest, for much to his aggravation and despite his disinclination to further their acquaintance, she had been actively pursuing him for months. He chose his paramours carefully, however, and while extramarital affairs within the ton were frequently overlooked once a husband had been provided with his requisite heirs, he’d never felt right about bedding another man’s wife, preferring to keep his liaisons free of such moral entanglements. Even so, a dalliance with the Countess of Beckford held little appeal, for he couldn’t abide vain, narcissistic women who believed a pretty face could get them anything, or anyone, they wanted. “Trust me,” he replied with a grimace, “you can set your mind at ease in that regard, for I haven’t the slightest intention of becoming one of the countess’ conquests.”