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Lord Carroll considered himself the most fortunate of men. Not only did the earl have his prosperous estate at Winterpark, his health and his fortune, but he had the love of his dearest friend, his wife, Bess. In addition, he was thrice blessed with the three most perfect daughters ever to grace the countryside. Nay, the entire country.
First came Joia, the eldest, the most beautiful, the earl's favorite. Tall and willowy, blond and blue-eyed, fair Joia was the image of her mother at that age and had his beloved Bess's poise and charm of manner. She brought peace to a man's soul.
Hollice, Bradford Carroll's middle daughter, was the brightest. Stunningly dark-haired, clever Holly was his chess partner, his political debate partner, definitely his favorite. She brought sweet reason to tumultuous times.
Youngest was Meredyth, who tried to be the son the earl didn't have. She was always at his side, hunting, fishing, riding about the estate with him. She even had the red hair and freckles of his own youth. Winsome Merry was absolutely his favorite. She made him smile.
How fortunate he was, the earl thought again as he gazed around the drawing room at his cherished family. Two blond heads were bent over a bit of fabric as Bess and Joia worked on a new altar cloth for the chapel. Holly was at the pianoforte, trying some new composition her doting father was certain she'd soon master. And Merry was sitting on the floor, attempting to teach some manners to the stupidest, ugliest dog she'd ever dragged home from who-knew-where.
Lord Carroll's only regret, besides Merry's latest foundling, was that he hadn't married early enough in life to be around to enjoy hischildren longer, and perhaps his grandchildren, too. There was no denying that he was getting old, staring at sixty. Of course, if he'd married in his youth, the earl thought, his dearest Bess would have been in her cradle still. He'd never have had the past twenty-one years of her affection, nor the three daughters she'd blessed him with, with all their ruffles and dimples and giggles.
And all their moods and megrims. Three daughters, what a curse! Now he had three young women to find husbands for, three young ladies he'd have to hand over to some brass-faced, callow youths who wouldn't recognize them for the treasures they were. Well, no basket-scramblers were going to get near his little princesses, Lord Carroll swore. No fortune hunters, gamblers, or womanizers, not after he'd suffered through the weeping and wheedling and adolescent willfulness. If there were three gentlemen worthy of his darlings, the earl vowed, he'd find them if he had to comb all the corners of the Empire. No, on second thought, Bradford Carroll would sift through Berkshire, near Winterpark. No here-and-thereian was going to scoop one of his darlings off to the hinterlands where her parents couldn't see her. Bess would be heartbroken.
Ah, Bess! What would she do when he was gone? She'd still be a handsome young woman, with as much wealth as an entailed estate permitted the earl to leave her. She'd have the dower house, of course, but no one to look after her or the vast Carroll family holdings. No one, that was, but his cousin's son, Oliver, his heir, the twit. Why, any one of the earl's daughters would make a better heir to the earldom. Merry knew every tenant and all their troubles; Holly could manage the finances to a farthing; Joia was quietly competent to undertake any task. But they were girls. They could not succeed him, only Oliver could.
And Oliver was a twiddlepoop. Damn and blast! But the earl had a plan....
"I won't have it, Bess," Lord Carroll roared, pounding on his cherry-wood desk. "Do you hear me? I won't have it, I say!"
Lady Carroll looked up from the household accounts on her facing cherry-wood escritoire. "I daresay half the county can hear you, my dear, with the windows open. What is it that has you so wrought this morning? You know Dr. Petkin said that agitating your choleric humors can only aggravate the gout."
"The devil take Petkin and his pettifogging quackery," the earl shouted without lowering his voice one jot. He had to make certain the servants clearing away the dishes in the nearby morning room could hear every word, in case his daughters had already finished breaking their fast there. In a houseful of women, whispers stayed secret for perhaps an hour; Lord Carroll saw no reason to waste that much time. He pounded the desk again, in case some stray footman in the hall wasn't paying attention. "I won't have your daughter dragging her feet through another London Season, that's what."
Elizabeth, Lady Carroll, smiled at her husband's theatrics. He'd sooner part with his right arm than with one of his girls, and everyone in the household knew that, from the bootboy to Bartholemew, the butler. "And which of my daughters might that be, my dear?"
"The eldest, of course. Merry's not even Out, and Holly's only been up to Town a time or two. Joia is twenty, Bess. She'll be an old maid soon."
"Nonsense, she was last Season's Incomparable."
"And the Season before that, and the one before that, confound it. You know how I hate those boring tonnish affairs, to say nothing of the expense. And I should be here at Winterpark, overseeing those new cottages we're putting in. Besides, we can't get the next chit properly settled till the eldest is wed. Deuce take it, I want to see my grandchildren!"
"Then perhaps you shouldn't glower at all those young men who come calling on Joia whenever we're in Town."
"What, those unlicked cubs licking their lips over her dowry?"
"Not all of them were fortune hunters, dear. Some were from the finest families. I believe you turned away a duke, two barons, and an Austrian prince last spring."
"The duke couldn't sit a horse, one of those lordlings couldn't get his eyes above her collarbone, and the other's eyes popped half out of his head. Do you think I want my grandchildren to look like pug dogs? Or to live in some foreign country?" He pounded the desk again. "Besides, Joia told me to refuse their suits, every one of them and scores more, to say nothing of the unmannered louts who approached her without asking my permission. By Zeus, the chit is too fussy by half. I am putting a stop to all this shilly-shallying and traipsing around the country, Bess. If I never see the inside of Almack's again, it's too soon. The Marriage Mart, hah! The deuced place hasn't accomplished a blasted thing that I can see except force me into knee smalls every Wednesday night. No, this year we'll have a hunt ball instead."
"We have a hunt ball every autumn, Bradford, and a Christmas ball every December, and--"
"Yes, yes, but this year'll be different. We'll invite every eligible parti we can think of, every noble sprig and nabob's sprout. And we'll keep them here for an extended house party. We'll get up extra hunts, impromptu dances, even run a steeplechase. Give the gal time to get acquainted, then have her engagement announced at the Christmas party."
The countess raised one golden eyebrow. "And if Joia doesn't care for any of the gentlemen?"
"Either she selects a bridegroom, madam, or I'll choose one for her, see if I don't. She'll be betrothed by the New Year, one way or t'other."
"Now, here's a new start. Would you ask your daughter to many a man she does not love?"
"I ... I would dash well demand she fall in love with the man I select!"
Lady Carroll merely shook her head and went back to her accounts. "Yes, dear. Joia has always been a dutiful daughter. I am sure she will try her best."
"She'd better," the earl grumbled. "For I mean to see my girls settled before I stick my spoon in the wall. All of my girls."
Joia wanted to marry, truly she did. She wanted a husband and a home of her own. She wanted children. But not without love, never without love. Unfortunately, Joia hadn't met any gentleman she could love since she was sixteen, when she'd been too shy to speak to the object of her adoration, thank goodness. Lord Kirkendale was now stout, sweaty, and snuff-stained. He was seen at all the London dos while his wife was in the country breeding. Joia was no longer shy, and no longer quick to become infatuated. Sometimes she wondered if she would ever meet a man as good as Papa, whom she'd love with all her heart, as Mama did. That was what she wanted, Joia told herself, what her parents shared. How could Papa expect her to settle for anything less?
No matter how loudly he complained of having to do the pretty in London, Joia knew her father would never affiance her to someone awful. The idea of sharing her life with a stranger she couldn't care for, though, was awful enough. How dare Papa suggest she make a marriage of convenience, and his convenience at that? Joia wasn't having any of it, nor of his underhanded scheme to plague her with every rake and rattle in Britain.
The way Joia and her sisters had it figured after one week of the house party, the second sons, the chinless clerics, and the horse-mad half-wits were only invited to Winterpark as window dressing. Joia wasn't about to fall top over trees for any mincing fop, knight of the baize table, or suicidal sportsman, and Papa wouldn't let her wed one even if she did. Well, he might, they all agreed, since Papa could be talked round anything, but he'd be sorely disappointed. So would Joia.
No, the Carroll daughters decided, Papa had not-so-subtly invited the ragtag lot so that his true choices for son-in-law would stand out.
"Papa means you to have Cousin Oliver," Holly stated while the sisters were arranging place cards for that night's formal dinner.
"Papa hates Oliver," Joia reminded her sister. "He gets all red in the face just thinking of the nodcock stepping into his shoes."
"Oliver wouldn't want Papa's shoes," Merry said with a laugh, "for they don't have silver buckles and red heels. In fact, they are more likely to have dirt on their soles, which would send poor Oliver crying for his valet."
Holly smiled at their cousin's dandified manners. "But Papa's shoes are paid for," she insisted. "Oliver would jump at the chance to get his hands on Joia's dowry, and Papa would have to increase his allowance, too. As for Papa, he'd be pleased to see Winterpark stay in the family, with Joia wed to his cousin's son. At least his own grandson would eventually inherit the title and all. And he wouldn't worry so much with you here to curb the rattlepate's excesses."
Joia shuddered. She hadn't envisioned becoming a nanny, only a wife.
"I think Papa means you to have Comte Dubournet, Joia. He's titled, wealthy, and trés charmant."
"He's a Frenchman, silly, they are all charming. I swear they must be born knowing how to flirt. But you heard Papa, Merry. He'd never want me to go off to France, even if the war ends."
"Yes, but rumor has it that Comte Dubournet is looking to purchase Rendell Hall, almost on our doorstep."
Joia turned to her middle sister. "Is it true, Holly? Is Mr. Rendell selling the Hall?"
"How should I know? I haven't seen the man above twice, for all he's one of our closest neighbors. And I doubt even Evan knows, he sees his father so rarely. Perhaps he'll have more information when he gets here."
"It's not as though Mr. Rendell would be cutting Evan out of his inheritance if he sells to the comte," Merry persisted. "The Hall is not entailed, and neither of them ever lives there. Besides, Evan will inherit Blakely Manor from his mother's father. That's where he was raised, after all, where he calls home."
"But Mr. Rendell can't need the money from the sale of the Hall. Evan's father is said to be one of the warmest men in England."
"He's never in England, though," Merry argued. "No one lives there except the caretakers. If the comte purchases the place, you'd be almost next door. That would please Papa."
"But would it please you, Holly?" Joia asked her middle sister. "Wouldn't you and Evan rather have Rendell Hall than live with Squire and Mrs. Blakely?"
Holly dropped the card she was holding. "Evan Rendell and I have been friends forever. We all have, as you very well know."
"But I thought the wind sat in that quarter," Joia said, trying to wrest the fallen place card out of the mouth of Merry's dog.
"That wind blows only through Papa's cockloft." Still, Holly quickly changed the subject. "What about the viscount, then, Joia? Do you think Papa means you to have him?"
"What, Lord Comfort? Papa could never suppose I'd accept that rake."
"But he is devilishly handsome."
"And well he knows it! The man is self-important and supercilious!"
"He's the Duke of Carlisle's heir, though. You know that must count for something with Papa," Holly reasoned.
"It counts for naught with me, since the man is a confirmed rake. His name has been linked to every ballet dancer and--" She paused at Holly's cough and nod in their younger sister's wide-eyed direction. "That is, Papa cannot approve of Craighton Ellingsworth, no matter whose heir he is."
"Then you might as well pair him with Aubergine Willenborg." Merry held out the dashing young widow's name card, proving she wasn't quite as innocent as her sisters wished to pretend. Mrs. Willenborg was a connection of Mama's who had been invited to round out the numbers, as well as she rounded out her low-cut gowns.
"Perfect!" Joia exclaimed. "That should keep the viscount contented, and out of contention for Papa's little game."
"Ahem." All eyes turned to where the butler was straightening the silverware at the other end of the long table. Mr. Bartholemew had been the family's butler since before there was a family. He might be slower answering the front door, but his hearing was as acute as ever.
"Yes, Barty? Are you in Papa's confidence?"
The old butler sighed in regret for lost opportunities. M'lord was playing this hand close to his chest. "No, m'ladies. I simply wished to inform you that the household staff favors Master Oliver's chances at odds of two to one, while Jake reports the stable crew appears to be leaning toward monsieur le comte."
Joia wasn't the least surprised that her affairs were public knowledge. "Where are you placing your bets, Barty?"
The butler ahemed again in indignation. Wager on the family? Before all the cards were dealt? "I believe Master Evan is bringing some young officers and old schoolmates when he arrives for the hunt. His invitation did include any of his friends who might be interested. Perhaps one of those young men will suit."
"What about the viscount?" Joia wanted to know.
Bartholemew polished a speck off one of the forks. "Lord Comfort has spent the two days since his arrival visiting various horse breeders. He is not widely perceived as, ah, ready to establish his nursery."
Which meant, Joia knew, that Viscount Comfort was still finding comfort in the arms of every willing widow across the width of England. Joia mightn't be as smart as Holly or as spirited as Merry, but she was no porcelain doll to be moved from shelf to shelf at anyone's whim. Bradford Carroll, Earl of Carroll, hadn't bred any spineless fools. Joia was worldly wise enough to realize that, standing heir to a dukedom, Comfort must be under more pressure than she to marry and ensure the succession. Furthermore, his father, the duke, was one of Papa's closest friends. The viscount had wealth, breeding, looks--and the morals of a maggot. Joia wasn't having any of him, no matter Papa's machinations. She had money of her own and, being the daughter of an earl, had a title of her own. Lady Joia Carroll would rather stay an old maid than wed a wandering-eyed womanizer. So there.