Anthony knew that he did not fit the image of a man who had settling down on his mind. He’d spent the last decade as the worst sort of rake, taking pleasure where he may. For as he well knew, life was short and certainly meant to be enjoyed. Oh, he’d had a certain code of honor. He never dallied with well-bred young women. Anyone who might have any right to demand marriage was strictly off-limits.

With four younger sisters of his own, Anthony had a healthy degree of respect for the good reputations of gently bred women. He’d already nearly fought a duel for one of his sisters, all over a slight to her honor. And as for the other three…he freely admitted that he broke out in a cold sweat at the mere thought of their getting involved with a man who bore a reputation like his.

No, he certainly wasn’t about to despoil some other gentleman’s younger sister.

But as for the other sort of women—the widows and actresses who knew what they wanted and what they were getting into—he’d enjoyed their company and enjoyed it well. Since the day he left Oxford and headed west to London, he’d not been without a mistress.

Sometimes, he thought wryly, he’d not been without two.

He’d ridden in nearly every horse race society had to offer, he’d boxed at Gentleman Jackson’s, and he’d won more card games than he could count. (He’d lost a few, too, but he disregarded those.) He’d spent the decade of his twenties in a mindful pursuit of pleasure, tempered only by his overwhelming sense of responsibility to his family.

Edmund Bridgerton’s death had been both sudden and unexpected; he’d not had a chance to make any final requests of his eldest son before he perished. But if he had, Anthony was certain that he would have asked him to care for his mother and siblings with the same diligence and affection Edmund had displayed.

And so in between Anthony’s rounds of parties and horse races, he’d sent his brothers to Eton and Oxford, gone to a mind-numbing number of piano recitals given by his sisters (no easy feat; three out of four of them were tone deaf), and kept a close and watchful eye on the family finances. With seven brothers and sisters, he saw it as his duty to make sure there was enough money to secure all of their futures.

As he grew closer to thirty, he’d realized that he was spending more and more time tending to his heritage and family and less and less in his old pursuit of decadence and pleasure. And he’d realized that he liked it that way. He still kept a mistress, but never more than one at a time, and he discovered that he no longer felt the need to enter every horse race or stay late at a party just to win that last hand of cards.

His reputation, of course, stayed with him. He didn’t mind that, actually. There were certain benefits to being thought England’s most reprehensible rake. He was nearly universally feared, for example.

That was always a good thing.

But now it was time for marriage. He ought to settle down, have a son. He had a title to pass on, after all. He did feel a rather sharp twinge of regret—and perhaps a touch of guilt as well—over the fact that it was unlikely that he’d live to see his son into adulthood. But what could he do? He was the firstborn Bridgerton of a firstborn Bridgerton of a firstborn Bridgerton eight times over. He had a dynastic responsibility to be fruitful and multiply.

Besides, he took some comfort in knowing that he’d leave three able and caring brothers behind. They’d see to it that his son was brought up with the love and honor that every Bridgerton enjoyed. His sisters would coddle the boy, and his mother might spoil him…

Anthony actually smiled a bit as he thought of his large and often boisterous family. His son would not need a father to be well loved.

And whatever children he sired—well, they probably wouldn’t remember him after he was gone. They’d be young, unformed. It had not escaped Anthony’s notice that of all the Bridgerton children, he, the eldest, was the one most deeply affected by their father’s death.

Anthony downed another sip of his scotch and straightened his shoulders, pushing such unpleasant ruminations from his mind. He needed to focus on the matter at hand, namely, the pursuit of a wife.

Being a discerning and somewhat organized man, he’d made a mental list of requirements for the position. First, she ought to be reasonably attractive. She needn’t be a raving beauty (although that would be nice), but if he was going to have to bed her, he figured a bit of attraction ought to make the job more pleasant.

Second, she couldn’t be stupid. This, Anthony mused, might be the most difficult of his requirements to fill. He was not universally impressed by the mental prowess of London debutantes. The last time he’d made the mistake of engaging a young chit fresh out of the schoolroom in conversation, she’d been unable to discuss anything other than food (she’d had a plate of strawberries in her hand at the time) and the weather (and she hadn’t even gotten that right; when Anthony had asked if she thought the weather was going to turn inclement, she’d replied, “I’m sure I don’t know. I’ve never been to Clement.”)

He might be able to avoid conversation with a wife who was less than brilliant, but he did not want stupid children.

Third—and this was the most important—she couldn’t be anyone with whom he might actually fall in love.

Under no circumstances would this rule be broken.

He wasn’t a complete cynic; he knew that true love existed. Anyone who’d ever been in the same room with his parents knew that true love existed.

But love was a complication he wished to avoid. He had no desire for his life to be visited by that particular miracle.

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