Peyton and the Paragon – Cathy Peper

She had done it again. Peyton could scarce believe it, but as he stood there, in the center of the bridge, nonplussed, Isabel Bentham vanished, with a swish of her pale, pink skirt, around a bend in the path. Her words drifted back to him. “Tell your mother I won’t be coming to tea!” Apparently not. He remained still a moment longer, rooted to the ground by the unsettling feeling that he’d just been slapped in the face for no reason. He pushed himself away from the railing that protected walkers from tumbling into the stream which meandered across his family’s property before eventually making its way into the sea. He had meant nothing unseemly by the invitation to go swimming. He’d thought only of the longing in her voice as Isabel recounted her childhood home in Cornwall. Merged with his own happy memories of tumbling about in the waves, he’d spoken without realizing his words might be misconstrued. In the end, however, humor won out over his sense of injustice and he chuckled to himself. She was as prickly as a bramble bush the way she rose to his taunts, but she must be all about in the head to think him capable of plotting her seduction on the grounds of Crosswinds. Peyton always made it a point to put his rakish ways behind him when he was at home and not even in Town would he attempt to ruin a young lady of good birth. He might be a rackety sort of fellow, but he wasn’t a reprobate. Hostesses invited him everywhere without fear for their young daughters. He couldn’t imagine where she had gotten such a notion about him, but then she and her cousin had not gone out much before his mother’s invitation to Crosswinds had made them popular.

Knowing little of the ways of the ton, she might have an exaggerated view of his reputation. She would need to acquire some town bronze soon, however, if she hoped to survive a real London Season. The cachet of being one of the select few to receive a highly coveted invitation to his mother’s annual house party, along with the rumored extent of her dowry, would practically assure Isabel’s success once she and her cousin returned to the city. It wasn’t vanity talking. Peyton had seen it happen before. Girls who met his mother’s notoriously high standards, yet couldn’t manage to wrangle a marriage proposal from him, often went on to make brilliant matches with other eligible bachelors. In fact, his mother’s parties had become rather legendary. Everyone in the ton knew his mother was searching for the perfect bride—a woman of sufficient beauty, grace, character and bloodline— to become the next Lady Roxbury. Money was attractive, but secondary to her other objectives. And, of course, this paragon had to be someone who could tempt him into leaving his profligate ways and making her an offer.

Was it any wonder that every candidate so far had been doomed to failure? Shaking aside his musings and having rationalized Miss Bentham’s baffling reaction to the best of his ability, Peyton headed back towards the house. His mother would be none too pleased at her guest’s defection, but Peyton figured he could turn her up sweet with a few well-chosen words. However, it took no more than a few moments back in the rose salon for Peyton to realize he had underestimated the difficulty he faced. The countess presided over a diminished crowd of tea drinkers, and although she had a smile plastered on her lips, Peyton could tell by the look in her eyes that her mood was thunderous. “Mama,” he said, walking briskly over to her and taking the brimming cup of tea she offered him, “it appears that Miss Bentham has lost herself amid the beauty of the east wing garden.” “You could not find her?” “I went as far as the bridge,” Peyton said smoothly. His mother’s eyes were sharp, but if he kept to half truths he might be able to avoid mentioning their quarrel. “Hmph.” If the countess noticed that her son had not actually answered her question, she let the matter drop. “Your friend Clay is also missing, walking in the topiary garden according to Miss Hollister.

” Peyton’s glance swept the room. Clay was no where in sight, but he worried that his friend might be straining his leg by walking all alone in the garden. His mouth tightened, and when he answered his mother, it was in an undertone. “I know he wants to regain full use of his leg as quickly as possible, but he won’t speed his recovery by pushing himself too hard.” “He’s sulking, I have no doubt, but can one really blame the poor boy? To come home with such injuries after the service he provided our country must be devastating, but I do wish he would make an effort. After all, invitations to Crosswinds are highly prized, and not only by the young ladies so honored. Men on the lookout for an eligible bride will find no better selection than right here.” “It was an effort for Clay to come at all, Mama,” Peyton said rather shortly, but his mother’s remarks were no more than what he had expected—genuine compassion for Clay’s plight and sacrifice mingled with her own exalted notions of what was due to her and her precious Crosswinds. His mother took such pride in the place that he wondered at times if she forgot that she had not been born there herself, but had married the young and dissolute heir to the Roxbury title in a valiant effort to save both him and Crosswinds from the road to ruin. The general consensus was that she had exceeded everyone’s expectations with the house, turning a neglected estate into a showplace, but had been at best only partially successful at reforming her husband.

Peyton wondered which had been the more daunting task. Still, his mother was right that invitations to her yearly gathering were not to be taken lightly. “Your sister has not made an appearance either, in spite of the fact that I told her I wanted her to practice mingling with the elite. She will be making her Come Out in two years and still has no idea how to comport herself.” Peyton smiled. “I make my guess that she is lost in a book somewhere and will come scurrying in after the tea has grown cold.” “A shocking want of conduct, in addition to the fact that I don’t want it generally known that Rae is such a bluestocking,” scolded his mother. “How will I ever find her a husband?” “You will have no trouble finding Rae a husband once she grows into those legs of hers.” “Alas! She is going to be shockingly tall as well as frightfully bookish and absent-minded. I will have a harder time with her than I have had with you, Peyton.

” As if her words reminded her of the reason for the present gathering, Lady Roxbury drew herself up short. “But I’ve taken too much of your time already. You must use this opportunity to learn more about Lady Alice and Miss Hollister.” Peyton nodded before making his way over to the settee where Lady Alice sat all alone. Miss Hollister had ensconced herself in the window bay, and Mrs. Hollister and Lady Alice’s companion occupied the wing chairs near the fireplace. His father, Peyton noticed without surprise, had not deigned to join them. “May I sit next to you, Lady Alice?” She inclined her head regally, but did not appear overly flattered by his attention. Peyton strove for patience. He just wasn’t having his usual success with the fair sex.

Determined to change this, he turned his full attention upon Lady Alice. “Have you had a chance to see any of the gardens? They are said to be very fine.” “I expect they must be to have swallowed up two of our party.” A slight smile turned up the corners of Lady Alice’s lips, blunting her aloof demeanor. “However, in answer to your question, although I have not yet been outdoors, I can see much of the topiary garden from here. Your mother must employ a talented gardening staff. It appears to be a very fine example of the art form.” “There is a maze as well, beyond the hill.” “A maze? Is that not rather old fashioned?” Peyton laughed. “I should say so! The maze dates from the sixteenth century, I believe, but I would have to check with my mother to be certain.

I know the secret,” he added, trying to coax another smile. She raised her pencil thin brows. “I would hope that you did. You do live here, after all. But you have put my mind at ease. I will have no fear of entering the maze with you, since you know the way out.” Peyton suddenly imagined how different Miss Bentham’s reaction would be to the same circumstance. Though his attentions were honorable in either situation, she would doubtless take umbrage at him for even suggesting that they wander through the maze, and accuse him of trying to ruin her. Of course, he had been known to steal a kiss from within the shrubbery as that was half the fun and allure of the maze. So perhaps Miss Bentham had the right of it after all.

He considered warning Lady Alice that she might not be as safe with him as she thought, but stopped himself just in time. She might not understand that he was joking. He could imagine her staring vaguely back at him with her dark eyes, her lips turning down this time. Lady Alice, despite her earlier smile, did not seem overly endowed with a sense of humor. She was, however, a practiced conversationalist. They chatted easily enough about mundane matters while Peyton’s mind raced ahead. With Clay in a black mood, if his mother was to be believed, and his sister playing least in sight, he would have to exert himself to the fullest in an attempt to please his guests. Actually, he didn’t know if he was up to the challenge this time. Lady Alice appeared unimpressed with his address and Miss Hollister looked either bored or pensive as she stared out the window. The chaperons seemed to enjoy their gossip and refreshments, but Peyton knew his mother was fuming.

It might prove to be an enlightening few weeks in the country, for Peyton feared that none of the girls that had been gathered here for his inspection were all that interested in becoming the next Lady Ives. It mattered not to him, since he wasn’t anxious to find anyone for the position, but he found the prospect rather lowering all the same. This year, it appeared he might actually have to exert himself and become the pursuer, rather than the prey. A month ago he would never have believed it, his luck had gone sour ever since that night at his club when he’d lost a bundle to a card shark named Bowlin. Peyton gritted his teeth as he thought back to that night. Bowlin had played him like a fish…

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