Sebastian, Earl of Charrington, frowned thoughtfully as he scanned the terms of the settlement. Certainly it was more than generous on both sides, and there was no reason to doubt that Sir Richard Wyatt would settle most of his vast fortune on his only child. For his part, Sebastian was prepared to supply his future wife with ample pin money and all the consideration the daughter of an old friend deserved, not to mention an ancient and honorable title. In fact, there really was no reason to examine the settlement except that Sir Richard would expect him to. Sir Richard would expect him to be thoroughly conversant with the smallest detail, as he had taught Sebastian to be with every business transaction that Sebastian had ever made. For, as Sir Richard had continually pointed out to his disciple over the years, it was not luck that made fortunes; it was knowledge.
It was certainly knowledge that had built Sir Richard's vast empire of mines, canals, merchant fleets, and joint stock companies. And it was knowledge, gained in a large part by learning all that one of the City's most successful men had to impart that had made Sebastian's own immense fortune. However, in this case, he already knew the terms of the marriage settlement long before they were committed to paper. There was not the slightest need to go over them again except that his future father-in-law would wish it. To Sebastian, reading a document all the way through was the least he could do for the man to whom he owed everything--the man who had been not only a mentor, but a father for the last fifteen years.
"Your coat, sir."
"Thank you, Phelps. You are quite right. It is high time I made my way to Russell Square." Sebastian slid his arms into the exquisitely cut coat of dark blue Bath superfine and waited patiently as his valet smoothed it over his shoulders and flicked away a few imaginary specks of dust.
The valet picked up his master's high-crowned beaver hat from the dressing table. "And may I be the first to offer you congratulations, sir. A most beautiful young lady."
"Thank you, Phelps. Yes, she is a most beautiful young lady."
"I am sure you will be very happy, sir."
Checking his image in the looking glass one last time, Sebastian paused as he straightened his cravat to glance at the valet. The man almost sounded concerned.
"Naturally I shall be happy."
Phelps's wizened features broke into an anxious smile as he handed Sebastian his hat. "Of course, sir. Naturally, sir."
Sebastian clapped the hat on his head, tilted it ever so slightly to a more jaunty angle, and headed toward the door. He paused as his gaze fell on the picture hanging just to the left of the door, and looked into the deep hazel eyes of the anonymous young woman who had for the last five years been bidding him adieu each time he left his chambers in Curzon Street. Sometimes her gaze was approving, sometimes it was humorous or critical, but it was always thoughtful, reflective, and oddly comforting.
Even though Sebastian had not the slightest notion who the young woman in the portrait was, he had been inexplicably drawn to her from the moment he had seen her picture in the print shop on the Strand. Then he, who had never given in to an impulse in his life, had purchased it on the merest whim.
There had been something in her expression that reached out to him that day as he had been strolling along the Strand after a busy morning at the Exchange, and he knew he had to have her regardless of price or provenance. It was a good thing he had not cared about the provenance, for the shop's proprietor had been unable to tell him much about the picture. Only that the gentleman who had sold it to him claimed it to be a self-portrait painted by a young woman who had had the very good fortune to study under the famed Angelica Kauffmann.
"Though you can see for yourself, sir, that she is a lady of some talent, to paint with such assurance at such a young age," the proprietor had hastened to add as Sebastian, taking the picture over to better light, had searched in vain for the artist's signature.
"And the gentleman who sold it to me was clearly a gentleman of exquisite taste, though down on his luck, sir, very down on his luck."
"Oh?" But Sebastian's questioning look had produced little more by way of explanation, for the proprietor had little more to offer.
"Seemed anxious to get rid of it, sir, if you know what I mean. Took my money without any, ah, discussion, except to say that it was a sad day he had returned to England, from which I gathered that he had been much abroad. Now that I think of it, he did mention that the picture was painted in Naples, but that is all I can tell you."
In fact, the lack of information about the picture itself had only added to its appeal, for it left Sebastian free to imagine whatever he wished about the unknown woman in the portrait. She was clearly a young lady of spirit as well as talent, if the slightly defiant tilt of her chin and the sparkle in her eye were anything to go by. And she was clearly not a properly raised English young lady, for there was a casualness in her dress--and in the way the mass of gold hair rioted around her face--that bespoke a freedom and a joie de vivre that would have appalled any self-respecting English miss.
It was the bright intelligence and the glint of humor in her hazel eyes that had first attracted Sebastian to the unknown young woman, but over the years, he had discovered her to be a creature of many moods. From some angles and in some lights she was thoughtful, reflective, even somber upon occasion, but she was always full of life and eager to take on whatever it had to offer her.
And it was not until now that--catching her gaze as he headed out the door to formalize his offer for Sir Richard Wyatt's only child, and the apple of his eye--Sebastian realized he had secretly been hoping all these years to find a real woman like the unknown lady of his portrait.
But there were none like her even though he had tried to find them. In all the scores of eligible young misses paraded before him by matchmaking mamas eager to secure a fortune and a title, and the numerous dashing young matrons seeking diversion with the undeniably attractive but elusive Earl of Charrington, Sebastian had never found anyone who combined wit and intelligence with the independent spirit of his unknown lady.
In the end he had come to doubt her existence himself. After all, every artist made the portrait's subject larger than life, why would it be any different with this particular painting? He had seen this phenomenon demonstrated often enough in countless exhibitions at the Royal Academy, where the season's very best portraits of the great and near great appeared more intriguing than the subjects themselves, particularly if they were female.
Sebastian climbed into his curricle, taking the reins from his tiger who favored his master with his usual impish grin. "You are looking fine as fivepence today, my lord. There's a lady involved or I'm not a betting man."
"Gambling will get you nowhere, lad." Sebastian shook his head in mock disapproval as he picked up his whip. "A clever mind, on the other hand, will at least earn you a livelihood." He tossed the boy a shilling as Sam clambered into his seat in the back. "You are quite right, however, though I suspect that it is not my attire but the fact that I am taking you along to add to my consequence, and am not headed to the Exchange this morning that has led you to your conclusion. I am calling on a lady--a lady who is soon to become your lady as well."
Sam let out a low whistle. "You're never getting leg-shackled are you, sir?"
Sebastian chuckled as he flicked his whip over the team's ears. "Yes, I am getting leg-shackled as you so inelegantly put it."
"Don't do it, sir. She'll have you selling your cattle and this curricle in no time for a coach and four. Look what happened to Lord Norwood, sir. His cattle and his rig were the first things to go. They all want town coaches, sir, and matched bays who have nothing but their looks to recommend them and will do nothing but sit in your stables eating their heads off. With what it costs to feed them, she'll never let you keep them." He pointed to Sebastian's high-stepping grays with a despairing wave of his arm. "She'll insist that you spend all your blunt on jewels and gewgaws for her." Sam spoke with all the misanthropic fervor of a fifteen-year-old orphan who had spent his formative years as a stable boy at the Swan with Two Necks.
"I appreciate your concern, Sam, but I assure you, the grays and the curricle are quite safe. Miss Wyatt will naturally require a carriage and jewels, but as a woman who strives to achieve a decided air of fashion in all aspects of her life, she will most certainly wish for her husband to cut a dash equal to her own. It would never do for her to be married to someone possessed of inferior cattle. And believe me, the stables at the new Grosvenor Square house are more than adequate to keep coach horses, hacks, and my team--all of them--in the utmost of comfort."
"I am glad to hear it, sir." Sam still looked skeptical. "But you know women, sir. Their heads are full of romantic nonsense and they want you to dance attendance on them morning to night. You won't have time for your curricle."
"Rest assured, Sam, Miss Wyatt has no such romantical notions. She is the most practical of women, and she herself would scorn anyone so ridiculously sentimental as to marry for love. Believe me. To her, romance is so much foolish nonsense and a waste of time."
"Then she's a rare 'un indeed, sir. I have never heard of a woman who did not want a man to spend all his time telling her that she is the most beautiful, precious creature in all the world," Sam observed darkly.
"Well, she is that, and she knows very well that I shall be the envy of all men."
By the time they had arrived at Russell Square, Sam was resigned to the fact that even heroes like Sebastian could be rendered foolish where women were concerned. Even the best of men could fall victim to matrimony, but at least the curricle and the sweet-going team of grays were not to be sacrificed. And Sam was somewhat reassured by the imposing nature of the mansion to which they pulled up. At least his master appeared to be marrying someone who would not bleed him dry, if the impressive nature of her father's residence were anything to go by.
Indeed, the marriage settlement was extremely generous as Sebastian remarked to his future father-in-law as they sat together in Sir Richard's richly paneled library. "As are yours, dear boy, as are yours," the prospective bride's father responded cordially. "I could not be happier for my girl than to have her married to a man of such fine and upstanding character as yours. It does my heart good to think that one day this will all belong to you--for in truth, as you must know by now, you are like a son to me."
"And a very fortunate son, indeed. I do not know how I would have gone on if I had not run into you that day at the Royal Society."
The older man smiled. "I knew then that you had the makings of an excellent City man in spite of your title. It was clear to me that you had a head for figures and speculation, and I guess I was right. I usually am," he admitted, his eyes twinkling. "But figures are nothing to Barbara; it's a title she wants, and now, thanks to you, it's a title she'll have. But mark my words, she'll make you a fine countess. She has the beauty of her mother and a style and grace of her own. I've spared no expense on her education and given her the finest masters money can buy. Now all that is wanting is the proper setting to make her a leader of society, and you will give her that."
"I shall certainly try. The workmen are already installed in Grosvenor Square. All that is needed is her direction, and she may have whatever setting she desires."
"And she will most definitely give that direction, for she plans to make it the most lavishly appointed establishment in all of London, the envy of the ton, and one of the most frequented addresses of the beau monde. There is no stopping my girl when she sets her mind to a thing. Why, she has even made a gallant out of you, bringing you out of that hardworking shell of yours after all these years. It will do you good, too."
He chuckled at Sebastian's involuntary grimace. "I know, lad, you did what you had to do to rebuild your family's fortune and win back all that your father lost, but now it is time to enjoy the fruits of your labor, and my girl will certainly help you do that. But here"--he reached over and pulled the bell--"let us allow her to speak for herself."
He barely had time to complete his sentence before an enormously tall footman appeared. "Please inform Miss Wyatt that her father and her future husband await her in the library."
A few minutes later a vision floated into the room. Tall and graceful, Barbara Wyatt clearly inherited her lustrous dark hair from her father, but the rest of her was exquisitely feminine, from the charmingly retrousse nose to the rosebud lips and a truly elegant figure. She was the picture of fashionable femininity. "You sent for me, Papa?"
The City's most successful financier smiled indulgently at his daughter. "Sebastian and I have just been going over the settlement and, as one would expect, he has been exceedingly generous, as have I. Not only are you to be a countess, my dear, but you will be an exceedingly wealthy one. See that you use it well, for that wealth, combined with your beauty and grace will soon put the world at your feet."
"Yes, Papa." Barbara's eyes sparkled at the prospect. A bewitching dimple flashed at the corner of her mouth as she tossed a challenging look at her betrothed. "But I will count myself fortunate if my husband is at my feet. I know how you City men are, spending all your time making fortunes and none of it enjoying them. When I become Countess of Charrington I mean to make sure that both of you are seen as often at Almack's and in the ballrooms of the ton as you are on the Exchange, and I shall be the very picture of fashion."
"You are now, my dear."
"Papa, you know I am not." His daughter regarded Sir Richard with indulgent exasperation. "One is not the picture of fashion unless one is born to the Upper Ten Thousand, or marries into it." She smiled at Sebastian, whose mind suddenly seem to have wandered elsewhere.
"Picture." He murmured and then hastily banished the image of a thoughtful face framed by masses of flyaway golden hair. "A picture is just the thing to celebrate our betrothal. I shall commission a portrait of you as a wedding present."
"Splendid." Barbara clapped her hands in delight. "Sir Thomas Lawrence is a neighbor of ours, so it will be no trouble at all."
"Actually, I had not been thinking of Lawrence."
"Not thinking of Lawrence?" The look of delight faded from his fiancee's face. "But there is no one else. He has done likenesses of the prince regent. Lord Castlereagh and the queen and ..."
"Lawrence is all very well for solemn portraits of elder statesmen and pompous peers, but there is someone new whose pictures of women at the Royal Academy exhibition were most captivating. It is a C. A. Manners, whose portrait of Lady Cowper was so lifelike that one almost felt that it was alive and breathing. In fact, there were portraits of several Almack's patronesses--Lady Cowper and Princess Esterhazy I remember quite distinctly. Surely," Sebastian raised a quizzical eyebrow, "you would not object to finding yourself among that illustrious company?"
Knowing he had caught her attention, Sebastian continued persuasively, "In fact, now that I consider it, you do bear a remarkable resemblance to Lady Cowper though your complexion is far more delicate and your figure far more elegant--both of which will be portrayed to their utmost advantage by Manners, who seems to have a knack for capturing the very essence of his subjects.
"Besides, if one aspires to a premier position in the ton, it is always better to set a trend than to follow one. Everyone commissions a portrait by Lawrence; Manners, on the other hand, is still being discovered. You will have your chance to make him all the rage, which will only redound to your credit."
Sebastian knew the weakness of his wife-to-be. At the mention of Almack's most celebrated patronesses, the stubborn look vanished, and as he pointed out the possibility of setting a fashion, the sparkle returned to Barbara's eyes and the smile to her lips. "If you agree, I shall call on Emily Cowper and find out C. A. Manners's direction from her."
That settled it. Sebastian's obvious familiarity with one of the beau monde's fashionable arbiters made the choice unarguable, and the very thought of having something in common with Lady Cowper was irresistible. "Very well, then." Barbara relented.
"Never mind, Puss," her father interjected. "A woman as beautiful as my daughter--and a countess, besides--cannot have too many portraits painted of her. When you are married, my dear, I shall ask Sir Thomas to paint you in your court dress, and you will see your portrait hold pride of place in the Academy's exhibition."
Completely satisfied, Barbara thanked her fiance very prettily and Sebastian, having finished his business in Russell Square, picked up his hat and gloves and prepared to take his leave after promising to escort his betrothed to C. A. Manners's studio once he had learned its direction. "And I feel certain that once he has seen you, Mr. Manners will drop all his commissions to paint the most beautiful woman in London." Sebastian bowed low over his fiancee's hand.
Accepting her due, Barbara smiled graciously.
Another bow, and Sebastian was off to the City, making a mental note to call on Lady Cowper.