"But I'll have you know," Phoebe continued, "I won't be jealous of your next mistress. I'm too self-assured for that."
"Glad to hear it."
"And besides. For that, I would have to suffer from the delusion that you could ever truly care about any of the women you take as mistress. But you and I both know that isn't possible."
"Are we back to calling me heartless again?" he asked, flicking an absent glance over his shoulder.
She squinted at him, pouting prettily. "Did we ever stop?"
His mouth quirked in response. He would miss Phoebe's particular brand of cynicism. Her wit could flay a man's ego at fifty paces. Her tongue was waspish to a fault, but also devilishly skilled in other more delightfully provocative ways. No, she wouldn't be easy to forget. But he would put her from his mind, regardless, as he'd always done with each paramour at the end of every affair.
The problem was, escaping the tedium of eternity that yawned before him in the meantime.
Leo had never been a man at ease with lingering in the hinterland between two places—the end of one thing and the beginning of another. He'd much prefer to continue on to London and find a new mistress to take her place. But instead, he was trapped here in this provincial hell.
His throat tightened on a growl of impatience as he called up to the driver again. "What were you saying, Rogers?"
"A woman, milord. On foot. The shepherd's drover won't let her pass. Oh, and now he's got hold of her bag with his teeth." He chuckled, clearly amused by the spectacle. "It's a right solid tug-of-war, it is."
Well, damn. Now Leo had to step out and see this nonsense for himself. If nothing else, it would serve as a distraction.
"So . . . have you?" Phoebe asked as he stepped down, the muddy road squishing beneath his hessians. "Selected my replacement, that is?"
He murmured an absent response that was neither admission nor negation.
As of yet, he'd not made a firm decision. He received more than a dozen perfume-scented requests by post each week, some even from women who lived on other continents and knew him by reputation alone. There were more who approached him at evening soirees, whispering scandalous promises in his ear while slipping calling cards into his pockets. It was only a matter of choosing one to be on his arm and in his bed.
"Not that I care a whit, mind you," she said, her skirts rustling against the bench as she scooted closer to peer over his shoulder. "Just don't tell me that it's to be Millie Sutton."
He absently pulled at the cuffs of his green coat and looked toward the convergence of dingy sheep and the barefooted shepherd boy. "No?"
"Absolutely not." She scoffed. "With that chirruping laugh of hers? And she thinks she's oh- so clever with her fan-play. Someone should tell her that she looks more like an injured parakeet with all that flailing and flapping. Not only that, but she whines constantly about the old earl leaving her nothing in his will. I've even heard that she's already ordered seven new gowns because she's anticipating your invitation and told her modiste that you would pay for them. Why, that woman would drain your coffers dry in a month if you let her."
"And here I thought you didn't care."
The truth was, he'd always known that women were attracted to what he could offer on the surface. Women liked his looks, his bedsport prowess, and especially his money. Which was perfectly fine with him.
It didn't matter much in the end, regardless. He never kept a mistress beyond four months. After that, it just felt too . . . permanent. Too confining. A lengthy affair only built expectations like a house of cards, increasing the likelihood of collapse with disappointments and betrayals. As his current former mistress had so kindly reminded him.
A large sheepdog appeared on the grassy knoll, drawing him out of his musings. The shaggy canine gamboled by in a ripple of rope-like fur, tinged a sooty black on the ends. A battered leather valise was clenched in his teeth. He stopped to look over his shoulder, one eye peeping through a thick mop of fringe, bobtail wagging as a figure approached.
And that was the instant Leo first saw the woman.
She dashed into view at a long, graceful lope, a damp gray cloak plastered to her willowy form. In her haste, the hood slipped to her shoulders, revealing an intricately braided twist of hair the color of fresh buttermilk. Loose tendrils escaped the confines of tortoiseshell combs and spilled wetly against the curve of her cheek. But she paid them no mind. Her focus was on the dog.