Lady Louisa's Christmas Knight

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  • Copyright: 2012-10-02
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No one would ever guess that Lady Louisa, the most reserved of the Duke of Moreland's daughters, had published a book of racy poems under a pseydonym on a dare. Before she can buy and destroy all of the copies, a dastardly fortune hunter seeks to compromise her reputation by revealing her secret identity at a holiday ball. Before she can be publicly ruined, close family friend Sir Joseph Carrington saves the day by offering to marry Louisa. As he recites poetry to her, waltzes with her by starlight, and showers her with lovely kisses, they both begin to discover that their match may be the best Christmas gift either has ever received...


<p><b>One</b></p><p>Sir Joseph Carrington acquired two boon companions after doing his part to rout the Corsican. Carrington was accounted by no one to be a stupid man, and he understood the comfort of the flask-his first source of consolation-to be a dubious variety of friendship.</p><p>His second, more sanguine source of comfort, was the Lady Ophelia, whose acquaintance Carrington had made shortly after mustering out. She, of the kind eyes and patient silences, had provided him much wise counsel and companionship, and that she consistently had litters of at least ten piglets both spring and autumn could only endear her to him further.</p><p>"I don't see why you should be the one moping." Sir Joseph scratched the place behind Lady Opie's left ear that made her go calm and quiet beneath his hand. "You may remain here in the country, leading poor Roland on the mating dance, while I must away to London."</p><p>Where Sir Joseph would be the one led on that same blighted dance. Thank God for the enthusiasm of the local hunt. Riding to hounds preserved a man from at least a few weeks of the collective lunacy that was Polite Society as the Yuletide holidays approached.</p><p>"I'll be back by Christmas, and perhaps this year Father Christmas will leave me a wife to take my own little dears in hand."</p><p>He took a nip of his flask-a small nip. Unless he spent hours in the saddle, or hours tramping the woods with his fowling piece, or a snowstorm was approaching, or a cold snap, his leg did not pain him too awfully much-usually.</p><p>"I honestly do not know how you manage it, my dear. Ten piglets, twice a year, for at least as long as I've had the pleasure of your acquaintance."</p><p>She apparently hadn't caught yet this season, though, and winter had arrived. This was worrisome on a level a man not yet drunk didn't examine too closely. Ophelia's fecundity provided reassurance of a fundamental rightness about life-reassurance far more substantial than that held by Sir Joseph's flask.</p><p>"Get me some piglets, your ladyship." He switched ears, and his friend tilted her heavy head into his hand. "Get me the kind of babies I can sell at market and grow rich on. Richer. For Christmas, a litter of twelve would do nicely."</p><p>Her record was eleven, and every one of them had lived. That had been two years past, when Sir Joseph had been desperately in need of some kind of positive omen.</p><p>A groom whistling the aria "He Shall Feed His Flock" in the manner of a holiday jig let Sir Joseph know that his mount was ready. The lad would not intrude on a private audience between Sir Joseph and Lady Ophelia, not when the groom could abuse poor Handel without mercy instead.</p><p>"I'm off. Say a prayer for Reynard."</p><p>With a final pat and a scratch, Sir Joseph left his porcine friend to join his neighbors.</p><p>Hunt meets reminded Sir Joseph of the army on parade: all the finery was visually impressive and the great good cheer and bonhomie on both occasions fueled in part by nerves and liquor. The agenda of the day in both cases was ostensibly virtuous, and yet, if all went according to plan, somebody not of the assemblage would die a bloody death.</p><p>That the somebody was a fox-mere vermin-and outnumbered by the hounds often thirty-couple to one never seemed to bother anyone but Sir Joseph. Even amid the great good cheer of a December hunt meet, he knew better than to share his sympathies for the animal with another human soul.</p><p>***</p><p>"The Little Season is a great pain in my backside."</p><p>Lady Genevieve Windham hadn't bothered to speak quietly, which her sister Louisa found surprising. True, grumbling to one's sister ought always to be a safe thing to do-Louisa had no use for the Little Season either-but riding in at the back of the third flight, they could come within earshot of their neighbors.</p><p>"We've missed all but the last two weeks of it," Louisa pointed out. "Thank God for Papa and his hunt madness."</p><p>"It's like hunting grouse," Jenny said, letting her mare drop back farther from the other riders ambling toward the hunt breakfast. "Lent ends, and the husband hunting begins, the mamas beating their charges forward into the waiting guns. I don't know how many more years of this I can take, Louisa."</p><p>"One grows used to much of it." This was not quite a lie, though Jenny's rare moment of low spirits required the kindness of... prevarication, at least.</p><p>"You've been at it a little longer than Evie or I, and I should not be complaining to you. I do apologize, Lou."</p><p>Jenny's tone was genuinely contrite for she was truly good, truly considerate, things Louisa had long since stopped aspiring to. Jenny had angelic blond good looks to go with her generally cheerful disposition, in contrast to Louisa's dark hair. In a despairing moment, Her-Grace-their-mama had called Louisa's features bold.</p><p>Alas, that was no lie at all.</p><p>In the meadow below, other riders were straggling in from the morning's hunt. A group of bobbing feathers caught Louisa's eye: two pheasants, a peacock, and an ostrich plume dyed-may the sainted bird never learn of it-pink.</p><p>And clearly, those feathered hounds were following a scent. Louisa scanned the meadow, her pleasure in the morning's hunt evaporating when she saw their intended prey.</p><p>"Jenny, I feel a charitable impulse about to overtake me." For of all men, Sir Joseph Carrington did not deserve to have the pack descend upon him.</p><p>Jenny stopped fiddling with the single tuft of mane unbraided over her mare's withers. "You haven't yielded to an impulse in at least five years, Louisa. Logic is your sole guiding... oh, dear."</p><p>"The hounds are running riot," Louisa muttered. "The poor man can't even see them coming."</p><p>A single rider mounted on a black gelding walked his horse across the meadow on a loose rein, while above and behind him, the four ladies trotted their horses in pursuit.</p><p>Louisa had been stifling impulses successfully for eight years, did Jenny but know it. She wasn't going to stifle this one. "Blame my recklessness on the approaching season. Sir Joseph doesn't stand a chance against all four of them at once."</p><p>The prospect of a decorated veteran, a knight of the realm no less-also a widower and a papa-being swarmed by Isobel and her band of marriage-mad minions wasn't to be borne.</p><p>Louisa nudged her mare into a canter, cutting over a stream, two logs, and a stile, with Jenny bringing up the rear. Sir Joseph Carrington had served with her brothers Bart and Devlin on the Peninsula, which further assured his place in that class of men whom Louisa respected without question.</p><p>He also had no sisters, cousins, or aunties who would rescue him from the fate trotting up behind him. None of the fellows riding in would dare lend assistance either, of course, lest they be drawn into the affray and find themselves dancing with every unmarried lady in the shire at the evening's ball.</p><p>Louisa knew what it was to contend with one's fate in isolation, knew the loneliness and exhaustion of it. She suspected Sir Joseph might too, and if she could spare him this small ambush, she would.</p><p>"Sir Joseph," Louisa called as her mare cut in front of the other four riders by two dozen yards. "Good morning! Excellent final run, wasn't it?"</p><p>Sir Joseph glanced back toward Louisa, which allowed her to see the moment when he realized his peril. "Lady Louisa, Lady Genevieve. Good morning."</p><p>He didn't quail at the pack closing in on him. He tipped his hat in casual greeting then faced forward again. Devlin had said Sir Joseph was a demon on dispatch-brave and unflinching. His battle instincts were apparently still in working order.</p><p>From the corner of Louisa's eye, she saw Isobel Horton of the pink plume glowering a sentiment not at all in keeping with the approaching Yule season.</p><p>Happy Christmas to you too, Isobel. "Jenny, weren't you looking for some help with setting up the hunt breakfast?"</p><p>Jenny's smile as she came up on Sir Joseph's off side could have graced a saint. "So, I was. Sir Joseph, if you'll excuse me?" She turned her mare. "Oh, ladies! Isobel, Elspeth, I am ever so glad to see you. And Isobel, that is the most cunning hat..."</p><p>Sir Joseph watched this maneuver, a hint of a smile hovering on his dark features. "Neatly done, Lady Louisa, and please thank Lady Genevieve when next you see her."</p><p>Louisa inclined her head, lest he catch her smiling.</p><p>Carrington's voice did not lie easily in the ear. His bass-baritone growl lacked the plummy vowels and aristocratic musicality of either public school or university. Louisa liked this about him, liked that he wasn't all pretty manners and mincing vocabulary. She liked even more that he knew exactly what had just transpired and didn't pretend otherwise.</p><p>"Care for a nip?" Sir Joseph held out a silver flask engraved with an unfurled rose bud. The thing looked incongruously small and elegant in his black-gloved hand. "And in case you're wondering, there's a combination of rum and hazelnut liqueur in here. It warms the bones."</p><p>She accepted his flask, appreciating the gesture, though he likely would have made the same offer to Isobel or Jenny. In the hunt field, there were frequent stops to "check one's tack" or let the horses blow while the hounds were cast. When the weather was brisk, these pauses invariably involved a tot of whatever was in one's flask. Even the ladies were permitted a discreet nip-Louisa had drained her flask before the second run.</p><p>"That is... good." Bracing, even. The brew itself was warmed by Sir Joseph's body heat, giving the spirits a mellow fire when imbibed. Louisa took a second sip and passed the flask back.</p><p>A very agreeable combination, indeed.</p><p>Sir Joseph helped himself to a swallow, and the flask disappeared into an inner pocket of his hunt coat. "I admit to some puzzlement, my lady: you are a bruising rider, well able to keep up with the hounds, even to leading the first flight, and yet you lurk at the back with the inebriates and the timid. You have piqued my curiosity."</p><p>Piquing a man's curiosity was not a good thing in Louisa's experience, though the part about being a bruising rider was lovely coming from a former cavalry officer.</p><p>"I keep my sister company."</p><p>"Ah."</p><p>Men had the ability to mock with a single syllable. Certain men. Louisa's five brothers had been born with this ability, and yet, she didn't think Sir Joseph meant to make fun of her.</p><p>"Lady Genevieve rides quite well," Louisa admitted. A good lie was based as much as possible on truth. Her brothers had taught her that too. "She is softhearted though, and does not like to risk being in at the kill."</p><p>"I see." The smile was back, very subtly. Louisa wanted to stare at the man to see if that smile ever broke forth into the genuine article.</p><p>Staring would not do, however. Louisa gained a moment's pause to think up another conversational gambit when Sir Joseph's horse began to passage. The animal was far from dainty, and yet, when it collected itself like that, quarters lowering, trot steps becoming elevated and cadenced, man and beast each looked elegant and elementally... attractive.</p><p>"Enough of this nonsense. Settle, you."</p><p>When Carrington spoke to his horse, his voice was different-purring and affectionate, not growling. The horse relaxed back into a walk while the rider stroked a hand over its mane.</p><p>"He is quite an athlete, Sir Joseph, and yet I noticed you also avoid the first flight."</p><p>"Sonnet is anxious for home now. He and I are alike in that regard-most comfortable among familiar surroundings. To reply to your observation, Lady Louisa, all I can say is that war has changed the way I view blood sport, to the point where I find the term an oxymoron. Will you be going up to Town before Christmas?"</p><p>Louisa knew what oxymoron meant, along with onomatopoeia, synecdoche, and anthropomorphism-for starters. Perfect gentleman was an oxymoron. Perfect lady was too.</p><p>"For the next two weeks, my sisters and I will remove to Mayfair with Their Graces."</p><p>"Do I surmise that this is not a cause for rejoicing?"</p><p>Louisa turned her head to regard him and found his gaze was serious-too serious? "Are you teasing me, Sir Joseph?" Her brothers-brave men each-used to tease her, before her schoolgirl arrogance had taken one of their dares to a disastrous conclusion. She did not miss their nonsense whatsoever.</p><p>Sir Joseph leaned a little closer in his saddle and glanced around, as if imparting a great confidence. "I am commiserating, I think."</p><p>He straightened, swiveled his eyes front, and kept speaking. "I go up to Town in spring and autumn and each time wonder if I'm not becoming more like my great-uncle Sixtus. For the last forty years of his life, he never once set foot in London, and each decade, he professed to be happier than the one previous."</p><p>"This would be the fellow from whom you inherited your property?"</p><p>"My farm."</p><p>His farm was thousands of acres. According to His Grace, they were very good acres, and Sir Joseph took excellent care of them. Lucky man, to be able to rusticate where one could see stars at night and go for a pounding gallop come morning.</p><p>Ahead of them now, Jenny and her companions were chattering back and forth, no doubt weaving a conversation about watercress sandwiches or something equally riveting.</p><p>"London isn't so bad," Louisa said. London was tedious, crowded, and full of people with a bewildering ability to talk much, say little, and apparently enjoy themselves in the process. "Christmas will see us back out to Morelands in a very short while."</p><p>"Two weeks can be an eternity."</p><p>He said this with something like resignation. Louisa saw him put his reins in one hand and fish inside his hunt coat for his flask, though he neither withdrew it nor imbibed any more of his personal brew-more's the pity. She could have used another tot. Two weeks was, after all, one million two hundred nine thousand six hundred seconds.</p><p>Perhaps he could have used a tot too. His expression was bleak, but then, Sir Joseph's expression was usually bleak. He was not a classically handsome man-his features were saturnine, his brows a trifle heavy, his nose not quite straight, though bold and a bit hooked. He yet managed to be attractive to Louisa for she had seen him smile.</p><p>Just the once, he'd smiled at his small daughters one day in the church yard, but Louisa had never forgotten the sight. His smile, full of warmth, humor, and affection, made him very attractive indeed.</p><p>"Will you be attending the hunt ball, Sir Joseph?"</p><p>"One does."</p><p>Yes, one did. Louisa suspected this was more of his unflinching bravery at work. "Shall I save you a dance?"</p><p>She regretted the impulse as soon as the words were out of her mouth, though not for herself. Dancing was one social activity she enjoyed, provided her partner was halfway competent. She regretted her question for him. Sir Joseph limped, and Louisa wasn't sure the fellow was even capable of dancing.</p><p>He petted his horse again, a soft stroke of black leather down a sleek, muscular crest. "I can manage the promenade. A sarabande or old-fashioned polonaise is usually within my abilities early in the evening. I haven't attempted waltzing in public in recent years and hope to die in that state of grace."</p><p>"The promenade, then."</p><p>As they approached the hunt breakfast, Louisa tried not to think of Sir Joseph growing old without ever again knowing the pleasure of sweeping a lady around the ballroom to the lilting strains of a waltz. If Louisa dwelled on such thoughts, she'd be at risk for pitying Sir Joseph. A man possessed of unflinching bravery, an excellent seat, and a half-full flask would have had no use for her pity whatsoever.</p><p>***</p><p>Louisa Windham had preserved Joseph from enduring the company of Miss Fairchild and her giggling familiar, Miss Horton, for the duration of the hunt breakfast, and possibly at the hunt ball as well. They'd been looking for him all morning, like a couple of hounds on the scent of the fox: eyes bright, yipping inane compliments to each other, their gazes searching the first flight for their prey, then the second...</p><p>While Joseph had the company of a pretty woman with no designs on his person, his purse, or his pork.</p><p>He assisted Lady Louisa from her horse, which allowed him the realization that she was not as substantial as her height might have suggested. When she slid to the ground, he collected one other little fact about her: despite the morning's activity, the scent of citrus and cloves clung to her.</p><p>Expensive, and in the brisk air of a bright winter morning... Christmassy. He liked it.</p><p>He liked her, in fact, though he would never burden the lady with such a confession. In the two years since he'd been turned loose on the local Kentish gentry, he'd spent considerable time on the edges of drawing rooms and dancing parlors, visiting in the churchyard, and tending to the neighborly civilities.</p><p>From what he'd observed, Lady Louisa went her own way, as much as such a thing was possible for a duke's unmarried daughter. She spoke her mind and had a saucy mouth.</p><p>Also a saucy bottom. He particularly liked her saucy bottom. He enjoyed the way her riding habit revealed a bit more flare at the hips than was fashionable, and the way she made no effort to hide the Creator's generosity with her fundament.</p><p>She was a woman a man could get his hands on...</p><p>"Sir Joseph?"</p><p>He stepped back from her while grooms led their horses away. "May I fetch you a plate, Lady Louisa? Something to drink?"</p><p>How long had he been standing there, contemplating her backside in the midst of their neighbors, the hounds, milling horses, and bustling servants?</p><p>"I could use some sustenance."</p><p>That she did not demur and swan off in search of her sister surprised him and pleased him. "As could I. Shall we?" He winged his arm at her, more willing to remain at her side than a gentleman would admit.</p><p>Though if he again thanked Louisa Windham for using her superior social standing to rescue him from certain capture, she'd likely give him a puzzled look, change the subject, and forget she'd promised him the opening dance.</p><p>Which he was looking forward to, oddly enough.</p><p>From several places ahead of them in the buffet line, Timothy Grattingly and some other young fellow started arguing about the ideal breeding for a morning horse.</p><p>"They would not appreciate Sonnet," Joseph murmured as the lady added apple slices to the plates he held. "He's good English draft on the sire's side, and pure Spanish on the dam's. A woods colt who saved my life more than once."</p><p>Louisa Windham aimed an impatient glance at the young men and their escalating disagreement. "Sonnet has a good set of quarters on him, good bone, and he's sane. I don't see that much else matters. Where shall we sit?"</p><p>Where the hounds would not find him, where he could enjoy more of Louisa Windham's tart common sense and sweet fragrance. "A little quiet wouldn't go amiss, in the sun and out of the breeze." The weather being nippy, even in the sheltered environs of their host's stables.</p><p>She shot him a tolerant smile, suggesting the lady had divined his strategy. "There," she said. "That bench."</p><p>Louisa had chosen a wooden bench flanking a dry fountain and a bed of dead asters. While Joseph remained standing with their plates, Louisa set their drinks on either end of the bench, unpinned her hat, rearranged her skirts, and otherwise caused the kind of fuss and delay natural to women.</p><p>He ought to have resented it, as hungry as he was, as much as his leg was starting to throb. Instead, he noticed that when Louisa pulled loose her hat, a lock of her dark hair abandoned its intended location to coil along the column of her neck.</p><p>She did not seem to notice or care, while he could not stop noticing.</p><p>Perhaps a trip to Town-to the fleshpots of Egypt, as it were-was not entirely a bad idea. A gentleman farmer who'd behaved himself the livelong year could do with some recreation at Christmas, after all.</p><p>"I'll take those." She reached up and plucked both plates from Joseph's grasp, gesturing with her chin for him to sit.</p><p>His preoccupation with the flawless, pale, and possibly clove-scented skin of her neck, or the exact feel of that fat, dark curl of hair against his fingers vanished as he realized he was going to have to get his arse on the bench beside her. A graceless moment awaited him. After he'd ridden for several hours, the joints of his right leg were not strictly reliable in their functioning.</p><p>He managed. It was a matter of moving stiffly, stiffly, then for the last few inches, nigh collapsing onto the bench, like an old man too stubborn to make proper use of his canes.</p><p>"Does riding bother your injury?" Lady Louisa started munching on a slice of apple after delivering her inquiry.</p><p>"There's a balance. If I ask too much, it worsens; if I ask too little, it worsens."</p><p>"And nobody asks you about it, do they? Care for a bite of apple?"</p><p>He enjoyed apples. He wasn't sure he enjoyed talking about his injury-now that somebody had inquired.</p><p>"War wounds are old news." He accepted a slice of apple from her hand. They'd removed their gloves to eat, of course, which meant he noticed the contrast: His hands were callused and bore a scar, a white slash that made a hairless track across the backs of all four fingers of his right hand. Her hands might have belonged to a Renaissance tapestry virgin stroking some fool unicorn's neck.</p><p>She frowned at his hand as a three-legged hound went loping past, sleigh bells jingling merrily on its collar. "Another injury?"</p><p>"An attempt by a French soldier to relieve me of the reins. He was not successful."</p><p>Thank God. Joseph slammed a mental door on the memory-something he'd become adept at-and accepted another bite of apple from the lady beside him. "Are you ever bored, Lady Louisa?"</p><p>She paused in a rather purposeful effort to clean her plate, glancing up at him with a puzzled frown. "What brought that on?"</p><p>No tittering reply, no simpering or casting lures, and the lady had both a kind heart and a lovely appearance. Better still, Joseph would open the evening's dancing with her for a partner.</p><p>Joseph waved his scarred hand. "Talk of injuries puts me in mind of boredom, perhaps. The recovery was a greater challenge than the initial harm. One does wonder what a duke's daughters find to amuse them."</p><p>"I have wondered the same thing. We make calls, we have charitable endeavors, we correspond with our sisters, sisters-by-marriage, and cousins. We attend social functions, and when in Town, ride or drive in the park. It's all quite..."</p><p>She fell silent, leaving Joseph with the sense he'd just glimpsed a hurt that wasn't healing all that well. He patted her knuckles. "I read."</p><p>Another look, much more guarded. "One assumed you were literate."</p><p>He read to his pigs, more often than not. "I read more than just the journals and classics, Lady Louisa. I am left to my own company a great deal, and winter nights are long and cold."</p><p>She perused the contents of her plate, which spared him any more inquisitions from dark green eyes. "They are. Jenny spends them sewing or painting-she must create. Sophie was our chief baker until she married Sindal, Eve is Mama's boon companion for the social calls, and Maggie frolics with her account books when she's not making calf eyes at Hazelton."</p><p>"I correspond with your-sister-the-countess regarding business matters." He also noted that Louisa's little recitation included no activity of choice for herself.</p><p>"With Maggie?" Another pause in her eating. "She would be so bold as to correspond with a single gentleman and no one the wiser. Droit du spinster, she'd call it. I used to think Mags had a pound sign where her heart was supposed to be. Little I knew."</p><p>She tore off a bite of Christmas stollen with particular focus, suggesting there was Family Business lurking at the edges of the conversation. Joseph took a sip of his punch then set the glass aside.</p><p>"Drink with caution, my lady. There's some turned cider somewhere in the recipe."</p><p>She studied her bite of holiday bread. "It's always like this, isn't it? At the hunt meets we bundle up in our finest, slap on our company smiles, fill our plates, and yet, there's always something... sour punch, a horse that has to be put down, a neighbor retching in the bushes while his half-grown son tries not to look hopeless." She put her mostly empty plate aside. "I'm sorry. I should perhaps find my sister."</p><p>Joseph had never considered himself more than passingly bright, but his powers of observation had been sharpened by the inactivity occasioned by his injury. Pretty, kind, titled, and well dowered Lady Louisa was dreading her next trip to Town, maybe all her trips to Town. She had no hobbies or pastimes she'd mention in public, and both of her older sisters were married.</p><p>And yet, she'd ridden to the rescue of a man she barely knew, perhaps because she heard the hounds in full cry all too often herself.</p><p>Joseph got out his flask. "Life can be like that, tarnished around the edges."</p><p>Mostly to divert her, he reached over and tucked the errant curl behind her ear, finding her hair every bit as silky and pleasing to the touch as he'd imagined. He could write a sonnet to that single lock of hair.</p><p>Perhaps he would.</p><p>"It's true as well, my lady, that we're both in good health, we have friends and neighbors who will miss us when we're gone, we have food to eat and warm beds to sleep in, and Christmas will soon be here." He did not mention that they'd be sharing the promenade.</p><p>She hadn't flinched at his touch. She studied him from serious green eyes. "You learned this while at war too, didn't you? You learned to be grateful."</p><p>"Perhaps I did." He'd learned something-how to content himself with agriculture, solitude, and good literature, perhaps. Almost.</p><p>"His Grace says you are also leaving for Town tomorrow, Sir Joseph, though one wonders why."</p><p>Her query was too insightful and made him abruptly reassess her with her serious pretty green eyes, lovely scent, and silky hair. "The same reason we all go up to Town. I must socialize occasionally if I'm ever to find a spouse. Would you care for another nip?"</p><p>"Yes." She accepted his flask and held it to her lips. While Joseph again admired the graceful turn of her neck, she tilted the flask up, as if she were intent on draining it of every last drop.</p><p>***</p><p>"Why would Sir Joseph Carrington be in need of a wife?" While she spoke, Louisa accepted a mug of mulled wine from one of the footmen circulating around the ballroom. There were little bits of cinnamon floating on top, a display of holiday extravagance on the part of the family hosting the hunt ball. Mistletoe hung in the door arches, and wreathes festooned the doors. The fragrances of evergreen and beeswax lurked under the scent of too many bodies that hadn't bathed since the morning's ride.</p><p>Eve waved the footman away without taking any wine for herself, though Jenny was too polite to decline.</p><p>"Maybe Sir Joseph seeks a wife because he has children," Jenny volunteered. "Little girls need a mother."</p><p>"Maybe because he's lonely," Eve suggested. "He's a comely man. He can't be much more than thirty, and Maggie says raising swine is quite profitable. He doesn't seem inclined to the usual male vices, so why not have a wife?"</p><p>Louisa sipped her wine, recalling Sir Joseph at Sunday services with the two little minxes who called him Papa. "You think he's comely?"</p><p>Eve Windham, the youngest of the ducal siblings, rarely ventured an opinion about any member of the male gender. She collected hopefuls and followers and even proposals with blithe good cheer, but never gave a hint her heart was engaged by any of them.</p><p>Eve's gaze traveled across the ballroom, to where Sir Joseph was in conversation with the plump, pale Lady Horton. The woman's two eldest daughters flanked him-penned him in like a pair of curious heifers would corner a new bull calf.</p><p>"I like a man who isn't silly," Eve said. "I like a man who will be able to provide for me and mine; I like that he's a papa-though he'll want sons to pass along all that wealth to-and a pair of broad shoulders on a fellow doesn't exactly offend, either."</p><p>Jenny's blond brows rose. "From you, Eve, that's a ringing endorsement. Were he not a mere knight, I'd be passing your notice along to Mama."</p><p>"It doesn't matter that he's a mere knight," Eve said, though her rebuke was mild. "Is the libation any good?"</p><p>Louisa wrinkled her nose. "Too sweet. Some people must use the holidays to inform all and sundry of their wealth."</p><p>"You're cross tonight," Jenny said. "I know something to cheer you up."</p><p>Eve's lips quirked, and the look that passed between Louisa's sisters was conspiratorial and mischievous. Eve and Jenny shared more than blond beauty, though Jenny was willowy and Eve was a smaller, curvier package. Louisa's remaining unmarried sisters both had a sort of gentleness to them, a warmth of spirit toward all in their ambit that Louisa lacked.</p><p>And envied, truth be known.</p><p>"I can use cheering up," Louisa said, picking up the thread of the conversion. "My evening starts out promenading with Sir Joseph, and my dance card is empty thereafter. Sindal will no doubt take pity on me, but he fairly heaves one off the dance floor in an effort to return to dear Sophie's side."</p><p>"Deene would dance with us were he not in mourning," Eve observed.</p><p>"But he is in mourning." Which was a shame. The Marquis of Deene was tall enough, a fine-looking fellow, and more family friend than anything else, which meant for Louisa's purposes he was safe.</p><p>"Lord Lionel Honiton is not in mourning," Jenny said, "and he's just now coming down the steps."</p><p>Hence the knowing sororal glances. Louisa did not look up as she set aside her glass of too-sweet, lukewarm wine punch. "He declined to ride today. I wasn't sure he was coming."</p><p>Nor had she missed him, though that hardly need be said.</p><p>"Too busy choosing his attire for the evening," Eve replied. "I swear he outshines the ladies."</p><p>Lord Lionel was all golden good looks, with brown eyes that put Louisa in mind of Her Grace's spaniel. When Louisa glanced over Eve's shoulder to take in his lordship's progress down the stairs, she saw he had as usual troubled over his turnout.</p><p>A handsome man who knew how to wear lace was a beautiful creature, regardless of his other attributes. Lionel sported just a touch here and there-his throat, his cuffs-but it was golden blond lace, which complemented his fair coloring and his blue-and-gold ensemble marvelously. His cravat pin would be something perfect-sapphire or topaz set in gold, perhaps-and the sleeve buttons at his cuffs would match it.</p><p>"Louisa's saving her supper waltz for Lord Lace," Eve murmured. "I declare that man wears more gold for a hunt ball than I have in my entire jewelry case."</p><p>"He maintains standards," Louisa said. Town standards, even Carlton House standards-assuming the jewelry was real, which Louisa doubted. "And he dances well enough."</p><p>Louisa knew of what she spoke, for she'd had the pleasure more than once. When one danced with Lord Lionel, there was a sense of the entire room pausing to watch. That he seemed to know it was only to be expected.</p><p>She considered that he chose her as a dance partner because she was, first and foremost, of suitable rank-a duke's daughter could dance with a marquis's son-and because her dark coloring set off his golden male beauty. Then too, she was a good dancer.</p><p>"He's coming this way," Jenny said, peering into her still-full glass. "I'd say he's about to speak for your supper waltz, Lou, and before he's done much more than greet the hostess."</p><p>"Good evening, my ladies."</p><p>Louisa stifled a groan of relief at the growled salutation. "Sir Joseph, good evening." Her sisters offered their curtsies, and Jenny-bless her-launched into the civilities.</p><p>"Marvelously mild weather today for the holiday hunt, wasn't it?"</p><p>Sir Joseph, severely resplendent in dark formal attire, appeared to consider Jenny. "One wonders if Reynard shares that opinion. He probably starts praying for nasty winter weather no later than April of each year."</p><p>"In spring," Louisa said, "he and his vixen are likely concerned with family matters."</p><p>Sir Joseph's lips twitched while Eve and Jenny both managed to look pained. Family matters-what had she implied? Louisa stared at the cinnamon bits floating on her awful drink.</p><p>"Perhaps he is," Sir Joseph said. "Perhaps he thinks of going up to Town early so he might confer with his tailors before the Season advances. Rather than discuss the sartorial habits of the fox, Lady Louisa, might I remind you that you've promised me your promenade? The orchestra is tuning up, though I shall certainly understand if today's exertions left you too fatigued to allow me the privilege."</p><p>He was giving her a way to decline their dance. Behind Jenny, Lord Lionel had paused in his progress across the room to speak with Isobel Horton. The girl had refined the simper to an art and was clinging to his arm like a barnacle. He gave Isobel his undivided attention, those brown eyes of his turned on the woman as if she were the light of his existence.</p><p>What would it take to inspire Sir Joseph to look at a woman like that?</p><p>"Louisa rarely passes by an opportunity to stand up," Jenny said. There was an urgent note in her voice, as if Louisa had missed a conversational cue.</p><p>"Jenny's right." Louisa shifted her gaze from Lord Lionel's peacock splendor to Sir Joseph's sober face. "The more I'm on my feet, the less I'm left trying to make small talk, which as you've no doubt surmised, is not one of my gifts."</p><p>"Nor mine." He winged his elbow at her. That's all. As overtures went, it had a certain compelling simplicity.</p><p>While Lord Lionel scribbled on Isobel Horton's dance card, Louisa took Sir Joseph's arm. She assumed her place at his side among the other couples preparing to stroll their way through the opening of the evening, and was assailed by a troubling thought: Was Sir Joseph partnering her because he thought she was in need of rescuing? Was this charity on his part?</p><p>The possibility was not as lowering as it should have been. Louisa instead found it... intriguing.</p><p>She could not marry, not while the threat of scandal hung over her like a blighted sprig of mistletoe, but she ought to be allowed to stroll the perimeter of a ballroom on the arm of a handsome man, shouldn't she?</p>

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