Guy Portias knew the hangover from hell when he felt it.
He lay as still as he could and tried to rate it on a scale of one to ten.
As he couldn't even lift his head off the pillow, it had to be at least an eight. The tight band around the back of his skull confirmed a port hangover, which was bad--that could possibly mean vomiting, followed by the shakes, depending on what he'd mixed it with. He tried to remember the night before. Hazy images came back to him, in no particular order.
He remembered the wrap party, to celebrate the end of filming at Eversleigh Manor.
He remembered suckling pig and syllabub and goblets of claret being raised in endless toasts in the huge marquee.
He remembered a mock sword fight on the lawn with the leading man. And being trounced--how was he to know that fencing was a prerequisite at drama school? Shit. He'd better make sure the swords had been put back safely in their place over the fireplace in the hall before his mother noticed they were missing.
He remembered Richenda, radiant in a white chiffon dress with a handkerchief hem, her glossy dark curls tumbling over her shoulders, looking as enchanting as some elfin . . .
Why did that word strike a note of recognition? Why did he get a sense of discomfort and alarm? With a growing unease, he lifted his eyelids to see if he could gain a clue.
The first sign that things had got seriously out of control was the tapestry hangings round the bed. They could only mean one thing. He was in the master bedroom, in the master's bed--the bed that hadn't been slept in since his father had died in it four years ago. Guy groaned. That was sacrilege.
The second sign was the arm stretched across his chest. It was long and elegant, as slender and white as a swan's neck. His eye ran down its length to the wrist, on which was hung a pretty little diamond watch. Then he looked at the hand, his heart beating with trepidation. He had a shrewd suspicion of what he might see there, but was hoping against hope that it was the remnant of an alcohol-infused dream that was feeding his premonition.
But no. There it was, on the ring finger of her left hand. A whopping great ruby, as deep and dark and red as the port he'd been drinking, surrounded by a sprinkling of diamonds. His grandmother's engagement ring. The one that had, until last night, been incarcerated in the Portias safe awaiting a suitable recipient.
Beside him, Richenda stirred. Their eyes met. He knew without looking that his would be shot with tiny veins. Hers, by contrast, were clear: bright whites surrounding the mesmerizing green orbs that had been partially responsible for her meteoric rise to fame. Eyes you could drown in, agreed the press, rather unimaginatively. Eyes that could drive you mad and make you lose all reason, thought Guy. Eyes the color of absinthe, that insidious liquor that had driven so many men to the brink of insanity. And like Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh and Gaugin before him, he'd lost the fucking plot.
Her mouth curved into a smile. The full bottom lip and the pronounced bow above combined to give her a permanent pout that promised kisses of incredible softness, kisses that Guy knew kept their promise. But that wasn't the point. You didn't propose to a girl just because she kissed like an angel.
Richenda lifted her hand and ran her finger across his cheek. "My almost husband," she murmured.
Guy gulped. Now was the moment he should retract his proposal. Put it down to a surfeit of Taylor's; explain that he was prone to acts of foolhardiness and impulsiveness when he overdid it. It was practically his party trick, proposing to girls when he was drunk. He never expected them to take him seriously. But Richenda obviously had.
He knew there would be a high price to pay if he backtracked. There wasn't a woman on the planet who would take kindly to a man's reneging on his demands for her hand in marriage. It was, after all, the highest insult, the ultimate rejection. He imagined there would be hysterics, recriminations, tantrums, possible physical violence. But how long could that reasonably last? If she had any pride, she'd take the first available train back to London. So he would have to tolerate two hours of torture at the most.
Compared to a possible lifetime.
He cleared his throat, then felt her hand with the incriminating heirloom slide up his thigh.
"I--" he started halfheartedly.
"Shh," she commanded softly, a mischievous twitch playing at the corners of that beautiful mouth. Then her head disappeared under the blankets and Guy felt his resolve slither away. He tried wildly to grasp at reason, but reason was telling him he'd have to be mad to reject her now. There wasn't a man in the country who wouldn't swap places with him. She'd been voted the country's sexiest woman by a leading lad mag, and that was without revealing any more than the most discreet peep of her d*colletage. Only Guy knew the truth about her breasts, the perfect little handfuls like Marie Antoinette's coups de champagne. She was the success story of the year. Darling of the small screen, the gossip columns and the paparazzi. It was rumored that she'd just signed a seven-figure golden handcuff deal with ITV.
And that was the sticking point. Never mind the heavenly lips working steadily to convince him. When you had a fifteenth-century manor house falling down around your ears, you didn't look a gift horse in the mouth.
Afterward, Guy could never be quite sure why it was he had hesitated. Was it because he was a coward, too afraid to face up to her bitter recriminations? Was it because he was mercenary, and saw in her newly acquired wealth the answer to all his problems? Or was it because he felt as if he were about to explode into a million exquisite particles of fairy dust?
As he let out a groan that was part despair, part ecstasy, he knew he had lost his chance. He had to go along with it now. At least for the time being . . .
Strangely, once he'd reached his climax, his resolve stiffened again. Richenda protested as he slid out from between the blankets, but he patted her reassuringly. "I'm going to bring you tea."
He ran down the sweeping staircase to the hall, with its magnificent paneling and huge fireplace. He noted with relief that the swords were in their place. The production team had been told that when they left Eversleigh Manor, it should be as if they had never been there. Someone must have been sober enough last night to put them back. No one wanted to incur the wrath of his mother, the formidable Madeleine.
He slipped along the corridor past the dining room and through the swinging baize door into the warmth of the kitchen, where he filled the kettle and placed it on the Aga range-cooker. All the time he was mentally assessing what damage control could be done without coming across as a total bastard.
He'd tell her he wasn't good enough for her. That he wasn't ready to settle down. That he was off on a mission to save a rain forest with Sting and that he might never come back, effectively widowing her before she was even married. She needed stability: a supportive husband who could stand proudly by her side at awards ceremonies, who understood the pressures and the stresses and the strains of celebritydom. Not someone who hadn't watched television for five years, for God's sake!
He could hear the telephone ringing in the passage outside. There was a little booth with a shelf and an old-fashioned phone with a thick cord connecting it to the wall, and a proper ring that echoed through the corridors in the early morning quiet. He hurried to answer it.
"Eversleigh," he announced.
"Morning." A syrupy voice slid like molasses down the line. "I wanted to be the first to congratulate you. Please tell me I am."
Guy grasped the cord and wound it round his thumb.
"I'll tell you if you tell me who you are," he countered, oozing the equivalent amount of treacle. He was a great believer in treating like with like. There was no point in being defensive or aggressive or curt.
"Cindy Marks. The Bird Inside Your Telly."
Oh, God. Even Guy knew who she was, as her name had been bandied round the set with reverence by all and sundry. Television critic for the Daily Post, she could make or break a series by her recommendation, and had been the greatest champion of Lady Jane Investigates. Cindy had branded it "the best reason to stay glued to your television since JR was shot. Correction, since JFK was shot."
Guy smiled disarmingly, hoping that his charm would bounce back down the line.
"And why do I deserve your congratulations?"
Cindy responded with a throaty gurgle of delight.
"Your engagement, of course. I expect it's a bit early for a comment from the future Mrs. Portias. I presume she's still ensconced in the old ancestral bedchamber. Just give her a big kiss from me, and tell her I expect an exclusive for Saturday's supplement. And I'm dying to check out the rock. She's a very lucky girly."
The line went dead. Slightly nonplussed, Guy hung up, just as the front doorbell jangled overhead. He opened the door to the most enormous bouquet of flowers he'd ever seen, a profusion of deep red roses and ivy intertwined with tiny twinkling fairy lights wrapped in gold organza.
The card read "Congratulations on a fairy tale come true, from Cindy and everyone at the Daily Post."
Who had blabbed?
Who indeed? There had been upward of two hundred people at the party last night. He had been completely blotto. Discretion had been thrown to the wind. For all he knew, he'd knelt down and asked Richenda for her hand in marriage in front of the entire cast, crew and associated hangers-on. It was hardly surprising that the press had got wind of it already.
Which meant that any hopes he had of damage control were well and truly scuppered.
Upstairs, Richenda was mentally redecorating the master bedroom. The tapestry hangings would have to go. Too heavy and ugly for words. She shook one experimentally and gave a tiny, ladylike sneeze as years of dust flew out. French gray silk, she decided. It was light, elegant and would hang beautifully.
She stretched herself luxuriously, and admired the glint of the ruby on her hand. She examined the ring more closely, unable to keep the smile off her face. Her engagement was the climax of what had undoubtedly been a wonderful year. It had started the previous September, when she had been cast as Lady Jane for ITV's glittering new series. This had been pitched to the Network Centre in six simple words: "Miss Marple with her tits out." The twin appeal of sex and nostalgia meant the series was immediately commissioned for thirteen episodes. The first episode had gone out before they'd even finished filming the series, and had been an instant hit, regularly pulling in more than fifteen million viewers--almost unheard of in this day and age. No sooner had the series wrapped than the cast and crew were pulled back to make a two-hour Christmas special. Filming had finished the day before. Richenda had known that time was running out, that she had to ensnare Guy while she still had a built-in excuse to be under his roof. And at the eleventh hour, he'd proposed!
She remembered the first time she had seen him, back in March. He was stripped to the waist, hacking at a sycamore which was overhanging the glass roof of the orangery, blocking out the light. She had held her breath as he dangled precariously from a rope and sliced seemingly recklessly through the offending branches with a chain saw. She didn't think she'd ever seen such an overt display of masculinity: his apparent disregard for his own safety, his confidence as he slackened the hoist to lower himself down the tree. She'd presumed he was a gardener.
Eventually, satisfied with his handiwork, he had lowered himself to the ground and she was able to get a better look at him. His thick brown hair was tousled; his skin weatherbeaten. She watched as he lifted a bottle of mineral water to his lips and drank thirstily, then tipped the rest of the bottle over his head to cool down. Little rivulets ran over his torso, sliding over the corded knots of his muscles.
He looked up and their eyes met. Richenda blushed, realizing she was gawping at him. All she needed was a dirty old raincoat.
"Hot work?" she offered, her voice weak with embarrassment and longing.
"Yeah," he nodded. "Had to get rid of them, though. We're due some high winds next week--don't want them crashing through the roof."
For a moment, Richenda was puzzled. She'd expected a country burr. His voice was slightly husky, the accent clipped, careless. And he had an air of confidence you didn't usually get with hired help.
He picked up a faded blue sweatshirt and wiped it over his chest to remove the residues of water and sweat. Then he shivered.
"Actually, it's chilly when you stop." He tugged the sweatshirt on over his head. Richenda swallowed, thinking hard.
"Would you like a hot chocolate, to warm you up?" she offered. "I was just about to get myself one."
This was a monumental fib--she'd battled all week to resist the hot chocolate that the caterers were dishing up by the gallon. But she didn't want this vision to escape. She was intrigued.
Actors bored her rigid. They were self-obsessed, vain, insecure and had only one subject of conversation: themselves. And even if they managed to achieve a perfect physique, they weren't real men. Richenda couldn't imagine any of the actors she was working with going anywhere near a chain saw, let alone risking life and limb to climb a tree with it.
"I was about to go to the summer house and learn my lines for this afternoon."
"Oh, right. So you're one of the actresses?" His eyes flickered over her with only a modicum of interest as he gathered up his paraphernalia.
Richenda was momentarily speechless. For the past three months she hadn't been able to walk out of the house without being recognized. She was practically a household name. The seminal photograph of her in nothing but a belted white trench coat, barefoot and sprawled on a tiger-skin rug, was hung in every garage and workshop in the country
Excerpted from An Eligible Bachelor by Veronica Henry. Copyright © 2006 by Veronica Henry. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.