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RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
She looked up at him and laughed, then dropped a low curtsey. “So here I am, mingling with the ton with dirt under my nails and barely a penny to my name.”
Magnus applauded her performance. “ ’Tis a great pity ye’re penniless, Miss Merriweather, but there are those who might make an offer despite yer financial state.”
“True,” she sighed, but as she leaned her back against the balustrade her eyes brightened mischievously. “But I can ensure that not one suitor my aunts deem worthy will offer.”
“Not one suitor?” Magnus said. “Were I in a position to do so, Miss Merriweather, I would challenge that brash remark. But my fortune is also somewhat wanting at the present.” He turned and looked up from the garden into the night sky.
“Truly?” Eliza moved beside him. “You are no threat at all?”
Magnus looked down into her curious eyes. “’Tisna as though polite society is not already acquainted with my situation.” He swallowed hard and began. “When my brother died, I inherited not only the earldom, but his debts as well.”
“Oh, dear.” Eliza patted his coat sleeve and looked up at him with sincere compassion.
Magnus glanced quickly at her hand on his arm, then inexplicably at her moist lips. He turned away and drew in a cleansing breath. “If I canna cover his notes by the end of the season, all that I own, including my home, Somerton Hall, will be lost.”
She peered up at him with her huge doe eyes. “So you must marry well or lose everything.”
“Not entirely, but it may come to that,” he replied.
Eliza gave a frustrated groan.
At her odd response, Magnus looked up and noticed that her attention was no longer focused on him, but inside the ballroom. Turning around, he saw that her aunts watched them from behind a potted palm just inside the door.
“Just ignore them. It’s what I’ve decided to do. Attention will only encourage their antics.” She turned away to rest her hands on the marble rail. “My, what a pitiful, penniless pair we are, my lord.”
Magnus moved beside her. “Pitiful indeed — ye with yer matchmaking aunts and I in want of a wealthy bride.” He exhaled into the night. “ ’Tis a shame we are not able to help each other solve our problems.”
Eliza snapped her head around to fully look at him. “Yes …help each other,” she repeated.
Eliza played her gloved fingertips across her pink lips, making Magnus want to taste them all the more. He felt a stir below.
Damn it all. Where was a stiff chill breeze when he needed one?
She looked at Magnus once again, studying him. “I believe I might know a way we can help each other.” Her eyes glinted with excitement.
“Really? How so?”
A sly smile spread across her face as she drew him away from the doors. And her prying aunts. “I want to discuss an arrangement with you.”