Destined to Last(5)

By: Alissa Johnson

What man could ask for more?

Feeling every inch as arrogant as Kate had charged him of being only minutes ago, he stood where she’d left him on the lawn, and patiently waited for her to reach the door, hesitate, then turn back to sneak a peek at him.

“There we are,” he murmured.

He considered giving her a wave, but thought that might be overdoing things a bit. Instead, he simply waited until she whirled around again and went into the house, before he casually strolled away.

Contrary to what Kate had guessed—or accused, depending on how one wished to take her tone at the time—he hadn’t come to the Thurston estate simply to attend the ball. Nor had he stepped outside with the hope of catching Kate trudging back from the pond covered in mud, although that had been a pleasant surprise, indeed. He’d come on business, and having a spot of time before that business was scheduled, he’d chosen a walk about the Haldon grounds over conversation in the parlor.

He was inordinately fond of Haldon Hall—the massive house with its generations of rambling additions, the extensive gardens, the open fields, and deep woods. But it wasn’t just the sheer size of the estate that he found appealing—although that did, in fact, greatly appeal to him—it was what the place represented that captured his imagination. Generations of Coles had resided there, each one of them sure of, and comfortable with, his place in the world. Even when the Thurston fortune had been at its lowest, the residents of Haldon Hall had remained insulated in a thick cocoon of status and rank. No member of the Cole family had ever known what it meant to be truly impoverished, nor was any member ever likely to.

They were a charmed lot—particularly the current generation. Not only had the present earl, Whittaker Cole, seen to it that the Thurston coffers were well stocked, the family also had the good fortune of being a remarkably tight-knit clan. He’d yet to meet a group of people more secure in their love for one another and in their belief that love always endured.

Perhaps it did, he mused, for people like the Coles.

In his experience, nothing lasted forever.

“He is not…ideal.” Kate’s mother, now the dowager Lady Thurston, stood at the library window and watched as Mr. Hunter disappeared around the side of the house. “His behavior is most presumptuous.”

Next to her, William Fletcher, head of England’s War Department, scratched at his bulbous nose. It was a thoughtful habit he was only vaguely aware he possessed. “Hunter is a good man. I rather thought you liked him.”

“I do. Very much.” His friendship with Whit, and his loyalty to the Coles in times of trouble, had made Mr. Hunter an honorary member of the family in her eyes. A sort of nephew, she mused. She didn’t know him well enough to think of him as a son. But she knew her daughter well enough to be skeptical with William’s notion of making Mr. Hunter into a son-in-law. “And I am not above admiring a well-delivered spot of presumption from an attractive gentleman. However—”

“He stepped in front of a bullet for Whit, you know,” William cut in casually as he continued to look out the window.

She drew in a hard breath. “Someone shot at my son?”

“Your son was a soldier for a time,” he reminded her. “I imagine any number of people have shot at him.”

Her eyes narrowed. The months Whit had spent on the continent were not something she cared to remember. “And the circumstances surrounding this particular shooting?”

“Nasty bit of business in London a few years back. A Mrs. Georgiana Clemens attempted to dissuade Whit and Hunter from arresting her traitor of a husband.”

“A woman?”

William bobbed his head and watched a squirrel dart across the lawn. “That’s the trouble with new agents pulled from the nobility. They never suspect the women.”

“Mr. Hunter is not of the nobility.”

“Indeed. He saw the pistol, pushed Whit away and took the bullet in his side. Well, across his side,” he amended. “He insists it was only a scratch.”

“I see,” she murmured, and ruthlessly shoved away the image of her son having guns aimed at him. It didn’t do to dwell on such things. Nor was it advisable to act on the swell of gratitude she felt, and the accompanying impulse to seek out Mr. Hunter and offer him anything his heart might desire, including the hand of her only daughter.

William turned from the window, his expression a bit smug. “And there is no denying the effect he has on Kate.”

“Kate appears to be denying it with very little effort,” she pointed out, mostly because she felt it wouldn’t do for the man to become overconfident.

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