She ignored him as she continued. “If you do not behave and make the best of it so that your brother can find a new wife,” she narrowed her eyes to slits, “I will personally make it my life’s mission to find you a wife.”

“Oh dear God in heaven,” Robert gasped. It was just the sort of threat that would work. He didn’t want a wife, not unless his brother failed to produce an heir and the job fell to him, leaving him with no other choice.

James chuckled beside him as their father tried his best not to laugh and was doing a fine job of it until he met James' eyes. He abruptly stopped laughing a moment later and cleared his throat when Danielle glared at him.

Two could play at this game. He narrowed his eyes and glared right back at her. “You’re bluffing.”

She smiled sweetly, too sweetly for his comfort. “Am I?”

He studied her for a long moment before he groaned in defeat. “This isn’t fair,” he complained.

“Too bad.”

Four weeks of balls, dinners and the bullshit of the ton was not his idea of a good time, but if it meant that it would help get the smirking bastard sitting next to him married and save him from a similar fate, then perhaps he should consider remaining on his best behavior, he decided as he leaned his head back, closed his eyes and sighed heavily.

This was going to be a long four weeks.

Chapter 4

Elizabeth forced a smile for the young Earl who was trying to monopolize her attention. Things hadn't changed. He’d tried the same tactics last season. The moment he walked into the room, he’d given her what she was sure he believed was a devastating smile before he worked the room, avoiding her for the next hour. Every few minutes his attention would shift to her face to see if she was watching him. She wasn’t. She only knew of his tactics because Mary kept her well informed.

Mary was the perfect chaperone. She knew absolutely everything that went on around her and had all the latest gossip. Her husband, Anthony, whom Elizabeth absolutely adored as the big brother she never had, kept Mary informed of all the latest information about every eligible bachelor. He was determined to make sure that no rake or fortune hunter got his hands on Elizabeth. He was very protective of her, almost as protective as Mary was.

Now she had to make conversation with Jonathan, the Earl of…well, she had forgotten. He’d tried to court her for three months last year. Every time he visited, she politely declined his offers for walks, invitations to the theatre and every other excuse that he could find to spend time with her. They danced at almost every ball only because it was polite to do so. He offered, she accepted, because she didn’t have a choice. It was that simple.

“I was wondering if you would care to take a stroll in the gardens with me?” Jonathan asked.

“Oh? Now?” she asked, trying not to sound alarmed. No honorable man would ask a woman to take a stroll in the gardens at this time of night and especially not in this frigid weather without having something nefarious in mind. A walk around the room would have been the appropriate and more honorable option.

“Yes,” he murmured with a pleased smile, clearly intent on trying to use seduction to gain her hand in marriage since nothing else had worked. She fully planned on refusing him, but she had to do it without insulting him when she’d rather box his ears for the attempt.

Thankfully, Mary was on top of everything as usual. She’d already decided with Anthony’s help last year that the Earl would not do. He was a reckless rake and kept mistresses until they became round with his child. They weren’t exactly sure how many illegitimate children he had, but it was at least five.

Society looked down on illegitimate children as if it was somehow their fault. She didn’t care if a man had an illegitimate child as long as he did right by the child and gave it his name and protection. The thing that disgusted her most about the situation was tossing a pregnant woman into the street like used goods. She could never be with a man like that.

Not that her parents had any idea of her plans. They didn’t. They were pushing for her to make a match now more than ever. In four months she was going to gain control over her inheritance. Her godmother had been a crafty woman who’d buried three husbands, building her fortune and holdings with each man. She’d passed away five years ago, leaving everything to Elizabeth. Her parents wanted to see her holdings in the safe and capable hands of her husband as if Elizabeth would allow any man to control her or her inheritance. Didn’t they know her at all?

“Elizabeth, Mother would like to speak with you.”

She gave Jonathan the sweetest smile that she could manage without gagging. “If you’ll excuse me, it seems that I am needed.”

He bowed. “Of course.” He took her hand before she could step away and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “Until later, my lady,” he murmured, pressing a second, lingering kiss to the back of her hand.

Elizabeth fought the urge to yank her hand away, forcing herself to wait for him to release it instead. She gave a curtsy and walked away, gripping Mary’s arm tightly. “If you ever leave me alone with him again, I swear that I will tell Tommy and Marcus every single prank that you and I ever pulled so that you will be walking on eggshells for the next five years with fear of what they’ll do.”

Mary laughed softly. “Oh, my dear, I am the mother of two rambunctious boys. Trust me, I already live in fear of what they’ll do. Did I tell you that one of the little beasts put a dead fish in our bedchamber last week? It was so dreadful.” She tried to sound haughty, but her amused smile gave her away. “Anthony swears he can still smell the fish in our room.”

Elizabeth tried to give her an innocent smile. “I wonder where they could have gotten that idea from?” she asked, deciding that it was probably best not to mention that they hadn’t found the fish that the boys had hidden behind Mary’s dresser.

“You wouldn’t know anything about that now, would you?” Mary asked casually. They walked along the wall, heading towards the courtyard doors where their mother was waiting for her.

“Me? Why ever would I do that to you?” She pressed her hand to her chest in feigned innocence, but Mary wasn’t buying it.

“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps you felt that I was owed a little something for going along with Mother’s scheme to make you spend more time with Lord Dumford.”

“Hmm, you know, you could be right,” she said thoughtfully. It was exactly the reason why she’d suggested the idea to her nephews. Her mother was desperately trying to make a match of her and Lord Dumford and Mary was helping. The man was near forty, balding and boring. The man was also a Marquee, which, in her mother’s book, meant everything.

Mary was pushing the match for other reasons. The man would never hit her and would probably have very little to do with Elizabeth once she gave him an heir and a spare. If Elizabeth couldn’t marry for love, Mary would rather have her sister settled in a safe match.

Mary laughed. “I should have known. Anthony will be livid when he finds out.”

“No, he won’t. He adores me. He’ll think it’s good fun. We both know he’ll do something to get back at me, probably by the end of the week.”

Mary shrugged. “You’re probably right,” she said, clearly biting back a smile.