London, February 1815
* * *
Tobias Powell, fifth Earl of Overton, smiled faintly at the brush of his mistress’s fingertips along his shoulder. He didn’t open his eyes. Instead, he pressed himself into the bedclothes as if he could hug the cozy softness of the bed. He was particularly tired today, but then it had been a viciously late night.
“What time is your ward arriving?” Barbara, his soon-to-be-former mistress, asked from behind him.
Bloody hell, his ward. His eyes shot open as he pushed himself to a sitting position, the bedclothes falling away from his nude body. “What time is it?”
“In the afternoon?” Of course, in the afternoon. They hadn’t even come back to Barbara’s lodgings until the sun was rising over London.
Tobias scrambled from the bed and ran about plucking up his carelessly tossed clothing. Foregoing smallclothes since he couldn’t seem to find them, he pulled his breeches on. Then he threw his shirt over his head and haphazardly tucked the ends into his waistband.
From the bed, Barbara held up the missing smallclothes, her wide red lips parting in a teasing smile. “Don’t you need these?”
“You kept those from me on purpose.”
She shrugged, her elegant shoulders arching, which made her rather large breasts also move.
Tobias groaned. “I have to go. My ward could already have arrived.” This was not how he’d intended things to happen. He was supposed to be on his best, non-scandalous behavior, both to support his ward’s debut and to find his own wife. “You are far too tempting, Barbara.” He narrowed his eyes at her as he tugged his waistcoat on.
“Your buttons are not aligned.” She laughed softly as she leaned back against the head of the bed, making no attempt to cover her exposed upper half.
Tobias looked down and saw that she was right. Cursing softly, he started over. “This is your fault. You’re a terrible distraction.”
She stretched one arm up over her head, which again accentuated her breasts. “You like me that way.”
“I like you every way, but you know this is our final meeting. It has to be.”
Lowering her arm, she at last pulled up the bedclothes to cover her chest. Pouting, she said, “Because you must marry. Immediately.”
Flinging himself into a chair, Tobias began to don his stockings and boots. “Within the next five or so weeks, yes.” Because his father had decreed it in a surprising change to his will before he’d died in December.
Tobias had to wed within three months of the former earl’s death, or he’d lose the one property that was not entailed—Tobias’s mother’s house, the only true home he’d ever known. He would do anything to keep it in his possession. Which meant he had to find a wife with nearly impossible haste.
And it was only nearly impossible because of his own behavior the past two years. While there were many who would gleefully accept an earl’s suit, he didn’t want just anyone. He wanted a wife of sophistication and wit, one who was kind and caring.
Someone he could love, even if he didn’t at the outset. Because he had no bloody time to fall in love. He needed to find a suitable woman, settle the betrothal, have the banns read, and complete the marriage ceremony within five weeks. All while any woman worth having would likely turn her back to him.
Reformation was the plan, and so far, he was failing. He’d tried to break things off with Barbara the other day, but he’d encountered her last night, and she’d been incredibly persuasive.
Finishing with his boots, he stood and drew on his coat. His cravat was also lost, apparently. No matter. It would have been a horribly wrinkled mess. He grabbed his hat and gloves from the top of her dresser and went to the bed.
“This really was the last time, Barb. You know it has to be.”
She exhaled, her dark eyes meeting his with a shadow of sadness. “I’ll find someone else, but they won’t be you. They’ll be serious and boring, and they won’t know me at all.”
Tobias brushed a dark blonde lock from her cheek and bent to press a kiss to her temple. “They’ll come to know you, and you’ll cure them of their dullness.” He straightened and set his hat atop his head.
“Perhaps I’ll take your generous settlement and just wait for you to change your mind.” She smiled up at him, and Tobias suffered a moment’s regret. He didn’t love Barbara, but she made him feel good and that was a lovely thing.
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