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After a long day of shooting pheasants, Edmund was lying on the gentle slope of the hill surveying his kingdom through a cloud of sweet tobacco deaf to his friends’ banter. It was the near perfect end to a near perfect day. The only thing missing was an adoring female to rub his sore feet and warm his bed after dark. His latest mistress had recently tired of his thorough love making and given him the boot. He wasn’t upset; she’d saved him the expense of buying her a final token of his unwanted esteem, but it left him thinking it was time to find his countess. He was only twenty-six, but eleven of his known male de Warenne ancestors had died before the age of thirty. To die young would be disappointing, but to die without an heir would be the gravest negligence he could commit. He’d writhe in eternal torment if he couldn’t complete his raison d’être. He had to have a legal heir before the age of thirty, but that meant he needed a wife. The thought didn’t make him break into a cold sweat or shiver with loathing. Marriage was merely another item on life’s list to cross off as satisfactorily completed. Those men who’d failed to acquire a pleasant companion had been careless. Choosing a cheerful bride would be as easy as buying a prize milch cow. By the end of the next season he’d be a married man. He’d send his London housekeeper a note to prepare his townhouse for the matrimonial hunt. He slotted the thought neatly into his mental ‘Do tomorrow morning’ drawer and tried to start a list of young ladies who might qualify. “Lucky!” He turned to smile at his two friends sitting at a small table holding three glasses and eight partially empty bottles of port. “Doodle has come up with the perfect wager. We need you to witness it.”

Phipps doesn’t believe I’ll find anyone to take the wager.”

Edmund reluctantly stood up and stretched with a satisfied sigh that echoed down into the valley before elegantly flopping into the empty chair between his friends. “Well, what is this new perfect wager?”

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