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Lord Falkland bets Lord Jefferson Blount two hundred fifty pounds that Lord Haworth will ensure the ruination of Lady Georgianna Bexley-Smythe by 15 May unless the Marquess of Stalbridge returns to Town and settles his debts before that date. ~19 April, 1813

Cedric Loring, the Earl of Montague, has been an honorary member of the Bexley-Smythe family for years. He’s always had a special, if sometimes strained, bond with Georgie. But when her name ends up in the betting book at White’s before she’s even made her debut, he knows no one can protect her quite like he can. If only she’d stop chasing after the very gentleman who could single-handedly see to her ruin.

Lady Georgianna Bexley-Smythe has the uncanny ability to remember nearly everything she’s ever read, and thus knows everything about almost everything. But as knowledge and experience are not interchangeable, she intends to make her first Season one of adventure. What could be more adventurous than seeing London from Lord Haworth’s gas balloon? Now she must avoid Monty long enough to make Haworth’s acquaintance and beg an airborne adventure.

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Damn Bridge to hell and back.

And then to hell again, for good measure.

Cedric Loring, fourth Earl of Montague, called upon every blessed ounce of patience he still possessed, which admittedly was very little, as he strained to ignore the bet written just above the position of his quill in the book at White’s. The implement shuddered ever-so-slightly in his hand, so he gritted his teeth, dipped it in the ink pot once more, and then wrote: Lord Montague bets Mr. Nelson Guest fifty pounds that the first week of the 1813 Season will pass without a betrothal announcement. ~19 April, 1813.

His bet was perfectly harmless—just a way to ease himself into the new Season. After all, visiting White’s was what a gentleman was expected to do whilst in Town, and what was one to do while visiting White’s but wager on inane and meaningless things?

The wager involving Georgie, however, was neither inane nor meaningless.

Cedric resituated the quill where he’d found it and then turned to Guest, slapping a hand on his back. “That settles that, then. At least until one of us can collect from the other.”

“And so it does.” Guest gave him a droll smile. “I’ll be happy to accept my winnings from you here next Monday.”

Cedric gave a half-hearted laugh. “We shall see, my friend. We shall see.” There were other things he needed to see to first, however, not the least of which was the protection of his longest friend’s sister. “For now, I must be off.” Without wasting any more time in the banal gentleman’s club, he gathered his hat and gloves and made his escape, lest he be drawn into something else of the fruitless and senseless variety.

Once out on St. James Street, he pulled out his watch fob. Three o’clock. Perhaps a bit early for a call, but surely Lady Stalbridge would forgive him for such an abnormality. It was only the first day of the new Season, after all. The ladies wouldn’t have been out too late last night.

Cedric turned up Piccadilly and made his way to Number Seven, Berkeley Square.

Jensen led him into the drawing room without even the slightest hint of surprise at his early and unexpected arrival. “I’ll inform Lady Stalbridge of your arrival, my lord, and Eloise will be in with a tea service momentarily,” the stodgy, greying butler said. He gave a brief inclination of his head before departing.

Cedric used the few moments he had alone to gather his wits about him. Lady Stalbridge and her daughters must not discover that Georgie’s name was in the book at White’s. The marchioness could possibly learn of it when Georgie neglected to receive a voucher for Almack’s. That said, there were more than enough other reasons for the patronesses to look down their lofty noses through their ever-present lorgnettes upon the Bexley-Smythe family, so Lady Stalbridge might not suspect the truth simply from that anomaly.

Perhaps more pressing than keeping the ladies in the dark about Georgie’s name being in the book, Cedric knew without a doubt that he would have to protect her from the bet itself. Haworth couldn’t step one single foot near the girl. Bewilderingly intelligent she may be, but common sense had never been one of Georgie’s best attributes. She’d fall for the man’s charms and be lost in an instant.

And then there was the small matter of her brother. Whether Bridge intended to grace London with his presence before mid-May was anyone’s guess. The man’s ability to settle his debts upon whatever occasion he arrived, however, was not a matter of conjecture for anyone who knew him. Percy Bexley-Smythe, Marquess of Stalbridge was, to be plain, strapped. Everything not carefully placed in trust by the previous marquess for Bridge’s mother and sisters was gone, and Bridge had accumulated debts up to his eyeballs in the two years since he’d inherited the marquessate.

Probably higher than his eyeballs, truth be told, and he was quite a tall man.

Bridge’s mother and sisters had already suffered more than enough from his folly, but Cedric was damned if he knew what he could do to alter their fortunes…aside from trying to ease their way in society a bit.

His ruminations came to a sharp halt when little Lady Edwina Bexley-Smythe breezed into the room and squealed in delight at the sight of him. “Oh, Monty, isn’t it wonderful?” Edie asked dreamily as she flopped down onto a settee, sending her blonde curls flying about behind her. Then she all of a sudden remembered herself, apparently, and straightened to a proper posture with her hands folded decorously in her lap. The elation never left her eyes, however.

Cedric bit back a laugh, not wanting her to think him overly amused by her antics, despite the fact that she already knew full well that he was wrapped around her proverbial little finger. “Isn’t what wonderful?”

She gave him a withering you-can’t-possibly-be-serious look and threw up her hands. “This! All of it. Town, the Season, all of the balls and soirees and musicales...”

“All of those events you can’t take part in because you’re still not out?” Cedric shook his head, more than just a little perplexed. He was certain Edie would be devastated that she was the last of the Bexley-Smythe sisters left in the schoolroom at a mere fifteen years of age, the only one to be left out of the festivities and gaiety entirely. “What on earth could you, of all people, find so perfectly wonderful about it?”

Her jaw dropped, in that manner she’d had since she was a small girl, the one which made it clear she thought him no more than an average dolt. “Really, Monty. It’s all just so…so…exciting. So invigorating!”

“So smelly,” he added, just to goad her temper.

Edie let out a thoroughly unladylike harrumph just as the door pushed open. Eloise came in and set down her tea tray. Before the maid could make her departure, Lady Stalbridge and her three older daughters all joined them in the drawing room.

Cedric rose and smiled in greeting at the Bexley-Smythe family—the family which, for all intents and purposes, was the only family he’d ever known.

“I do hope that was a sneeze, Edwina,” the matron said to her youngest daughter with a frown. “Ladies do not snort or make other such distasteful sounds.”

Edie merely rolled her eyes in her mother’s direction.

Lady Stalbridge took a seat on the sofa directly across from Cedric. Frederica and Matilda, the eldest two sisters better known as Freddie and Mattie, took up their seats on either side of their mother, and Georgianna—the sweet Georgie in question—scurried with aplomb into the leather armchair her father had always occupied while he was alive. The five Bexley-Smythe ladies sat there, with their varying shades of blonde hair and the same chocolate-brown eyes, like five versions of the same woman, all in different sizes. It brought him a sense of comfort…the idea that, while so much with the world could be so wrong, at least he knew that some things would never change.

Once they were all situated, the marchioness returned her attention to Cedric as she poured and distributed the tea. “And to what do we owe this honor, Lord Montague? I’d not expected to see you before the Sutherland ball this evening.”

“Nor did I,” he replied pensively. For a bit more time, he selected a biscuit off the tea tray and chewed on it. “But I found myself with nothing to do and no one to see on this lovely afternoon, and so I thought I’d drop in on my favorite ladies in all of London.”

Flattery had always served him well. Surely today would be no different.

Lady Stalbridge tittered graciously while Freddie, Mattie, and Edie all gave him small smiles behind their becoming blushes.

Georgie was not so easily satisfied, though. She narrowed her eyes and lifted a brow in his direction, and the soft rose muslin of her afternoon gown rustled as she shifted in her seat. “Nothing to do and no one to see? Really, Monty, you’re a peer. And one of the most eligible bachelors in Town. I don’t believe you for a second.” Her frown was deep enough to cut him to the core.

Instead, he laughed. “The most eligible bachelor in Town? Hardly.”

“Of course you are,” she shot back. “You’re an earl, and one of only nine who are also unmarried and under the age of fifty. There are a handful of peers of other ranks who would fit that description as well, but how many of you also have all of your teeth and haven’t squandered your fortunes?” Georgie leveled him with a stare, but didn’t pause long enough for anyone to answer her question save herself. “A very few, if one should ask me.”

“And we all know that everyone ought to ask Georgie for everything,” Mattie put in, barely stopping her smirk. “After all, she has committed to memory everything that has ever passed her eyes.”

“Not to mention a few bits that never did as much,” Freddie added.

Georgie’s face flushed to a fiery hue, but she held her tongue. A small pit of pride welled up inside Cedric at the sight. Not too long ago, Georgie would have immediately spouted off some retort or another to her sister, further fueling the flames. Perhaps she was ready to face the London Season. Perhaps she was no longer the little girl who was so desperate to prove her value through her vast and prodigious knowledge.

Still, she was very young, and a bit naïve, and far too impressionable for her own good. The Season, she might be prepared to face; Lord Haworth and his desire for retribution against her brother, however…Cedric wasn’t so certain on that score.

He cleared his throat, drawing all of their attention onto himself and away from Georgie’s discomfort. “Most eligible bachelor or not, what could be more pressing for me to do in Town than to make certain my favorite ladies have arrived intact?” Especially when Bridge hadn’t bothered to escort them.

That final sentiment hung heavily in the air between them, with no one needing to say it aloud, but all of them surely thinking it.

Finally, Lady Stalbridge smiled warmly across at him and then refilled his teacup. “You know you’re always welcome in our home.”

As she passed it over to him, she took his hand briefly in her own and squeezed, and a wealth of compassion passed through her eyes to him. Mattie, Freddie, and Edie each replicated her expression shyly, but when Cedric passed his gaze onto Georgie, he was left perplexed.

Her eyes were pinched together against her nose and she pressed her lips into a thin line, with a slight crook on the left side. He couldn’t remember a time when she’d looked more perturbed with him, and he hadn’t the slightest inkling what he could have possibly done this time.