"And whatever funds you have need of, if only to get her off your hands."
"I don't want your money," Ian said, "but I'll accept the offer of the town house. If you are serious."
"I am never serious," Dare denied, "but you are very welcome to the house. Remember, however, that by using it you may face guilt by association. Association with Elizabeth and me," he added, a trace of bitterness in his voice.
"I consider myself honoured by that association."
"They won't," Dare said bluntly.
"You have seldom cared what 'they' think. Why begin now?"
"Wait until next year," the Earl advised, ignoring the comment. "By then, the scandal will have died down. And perhaps..." He hesitated.
"And perhaps I won't be such a crock." Ian finished the unspoken thought, smiling up into his brother's eyes, which had suddenly become far too serious to suit him.
"What can it hurt to wait?"
"Miss Darlington will be twenty by the time this season begins. Her age will be a strike against her, of course, and if I wait another year..."
Again Dare's lips pursed. "We could buy her a husband."
Ian laughed, relieved to believe Dare's good humour had been restored. "Except she has no fortune."
"I'd be willing to dangle enough money to interest some worthy cit. Or even a needy younger son."
"I think she should probably prefer to choose a husband for herself," Ian said, remembering that flash of temper in Annie's brown eyes. Speaking, indeed, he thought, amused by the memory.
Dare laughed. "Have you been talking to Elizabeth by any chance?"
"I beg your pardon."
"My wife has some rather interesting notion about marriage mart. You must ask her about them sometime," Dare said, his smile lingering.
There was something in the Earl's eyes that created an unexpected frisson of envy in his younger brother, who had never before envied Dare any of the things he possessed by virtue of his earlier birth.
"I shall, if you wish," Ian said. "Is Elizabeth with you?"
"I didn't trust the roads."
"I wish i had been as wise," Ian said, and was glad when Dare was kind enough not to comment again on that ill-advised journey north.
"So you want to arrange a suitable marriage for Darlington's brat and make it a love match," the Earl said.
"Why don't you arrange for the defeat of the French while you're at it?"
Not a kindness, then, Ian thought, but simply an attack from the flank. "You think it's an impossibility?"
"If her father's actions become known. Especially since he named you as her guardian."
"No official inquiry was ever held," Ian said, trying to reassure himself that this would not become a •cause celèbre•. "An officer can't be charged on the basis of how he should have behaved in action. Only if he failed to obey a direct order, which was not the case. Besides, most of the men who knew about Darlington's cowardice are either dead or are still fighting in Portugal. And perhaps the fact that I am now Annie's guardian will quell any gossip that might reach London. At least until she has had an opportunity to make a suitable match."
"An improbability, then," Dare amended. "Considering that she has no fortune and nothing to recommend her beyond red hair and, I believe the phrase was, speaking eyes."
"I didn't say she has nothing to recommend her."
"You didn't have to. I've had enough of that sort thrown at my head through the years."
"She isn't 'that sort,'" Ian denied, with perhaps too much emotion.
He realized his mistake as soon as he saw his brother's face. Dare knew him too well not to have noticed that unaccustomed vehemence. The Earl's head cocked slightly and one dark brow lifted in question.
"I see," he said softly. A small twitch, quickly controlled, tugged at the corner of his lips. His tone, when he spoke again, was briskly impersonal, however. "If you are determined on this, then I shall have them make the town house ready. And you'll need the name of a good dressmaker. I can recommend someone if you wish."
"Of course I wish. I shall need all the help you and Elizabeth are willing to offer. And Val," Ian added, "don't be angry that I feel I must do this."
"Angry with you?" Dare asked. "I am never angry with my brothers. That's your office. But if you let anything happen to you, my noble pigheaded gallant, while you are trying to find the perfect husband for this bothersome girl, I promise you I shall strangle her and her headmistress. And then i shall seek Darlington out in hell to have a go at him."
"I believe you would as that," Ian said, laughing again, despite his resolve not to let Dare provoke him.
The coughing the laughter produced this time was thankfully of shorter duration. And when it was over, he looked up to find Dare's blue eyes focused on his face, their customary amusement again missing.
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