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London, February 1820
This business of acquiring a husband is going to be far from pleasant, Eliza Hammond decided from her place on the saffron-and-white-striped sofa in the upstairs family drawing room of Raeburn House.
Considering this would be her fifth Season—a lowering realization indeed—she knew she would need all the assistance she could get, despite the immense fortune her late aunt had quite unexpectedly left to her only six weeks ago. At least she knew she would be able to count on the steadfast support of her dear friend, Violet Brantford Winter, Duchess of Raeburn. Perhaps with Violet’s assistance, the process would not be as dreadful as she feared. Then again, thinking of the assorted ne’er-do-wells and fortune hunters already vying for her hand, perhaps it would.
“There is Mr. Newcomb,” Violet stated as she reviewed the current selection of Eliza’s prospective suitors. “He seems a very pleasant sort of gentleman with a genuine interest in the arts.”
“Yes, he was most attentive when we happened upon each other at the gallery the other day,” Eliza agreed, recalling the man’s even features and straight auburn hair, a shade that had put her in mind of a glossy-coated Irish setter. “He demonstrated a definite command of the great masters. Perhaps he has an interest in historical subjects as well.”
“What he has is an interest in card playing, followed a close second by a love of the dice,” interrupted a deep, smooth male voice that never failed to send a pleasurable tingle down Eliza’s spine no matter how firmly she tried to suppress it.
She shifted her gaze toward Lord Christopher Winter, better known to his family and friends as Kit. Tall, broad-shouldered and ruggedly lean, he sat relaxed in a leisurely all-male sprawl upon a nearby chair. Having spent the past twenty minutes eating his way through a stack of small watercress, cucumber and chicken sandwiches, he leaned forward now to conduct a perusal of the dessert tray.
A lock of his dark, wavy brown hair fell across his handsome forehead as he selected a pair of lime tarts and a thin slice of rum cake. As he transferred the sweets to his plate, he got a smudge of whipped cream on one of his knuckles. Eliza’s stomach tightened as she watched him lick it away.
She forced her gaze down to her shoes. Kit was Violet’s brother-in-law and nothing more, she reminded herself. Certainly he was nothing more to her. True, she had once nursed a secret infatuation for him but such silliness was long since over and done. During the nearly year and half he had been away traveling on the Continent, she had ruthlessly purged him from her heart. And by the time he returned to England this Christmas past, she had long since grown used to giving him scarcely a thought.
Still, that didn’t mean she couldn’t admire him for the gorgeous male specimen he was. And Kit Winter, with his beautiful, lazy-lidded green and gold eyes, sensuous lips and infectiously charming smile, was a gorgeous man indeed. One with an infamously prodigious appetite that seemed to make no impact at all upon his trim, well-muscled physique.
He bit into one of the tarts from his plate, a tiny smile of gustatory delight on his lips as he settled back into his chair. Engrossed in the confection, he seemed utterly oblivious to the volley of disappointment he had just lobbed into the room.
Violet shot him a mighty frown. “What do you mean by that remark, Kit?”
He swallowed and glanced upward. “Hmm?” He took a drink of tea, then politely patted his mouth with his napkin. “Oh, about Newcomb, do you mean?”
“Yes, of course about Newcomb. Of whom else have Eliza and I been conversing?”
“Well, there’s no need to come up cross, Vi. Just thought I ought to give you fair warning the chap is close to being dipped. Last I heard, he lost twenty thousand quid to Plimpton playing high-stakes whist and his luck hasn’t turned for the good since.”
Violet and Eliza released a pair of mutual sighs.
“If that is the case, then he is out,” Violet declared, turning her bespectacled blue-green gaze upon Eliza. “You certainly don’t want to take an inveterate gambler to husband.”
Eliza silently agreed and contented herself by sipping her tea.
“There is Sir Silas Jones,” Violet continued. “He sent you that sweet nosegay of hothouse roses last week. I hear he comes from a lovely part of Kent. Owns an estate that produces a most bountiful harvest of cherries and apples each year. Has quite the way with plants, I am given to understand.”
“That’s not all he’s good at planting,” murmured Kit as he polished off the last of the sweets on his plate and leaned forward for more.
Violet angled her attractively coiffured blond head. “I suppose by that you mean there is something wrong with him as well?”
“Depends upon your point of view. Some might say there’s nothing wrong with him at all.” He ate a guinea-sized crumpet topped with a generous spoonful of gooseberry jam, then silently held out his empty Meissen cup for more tea.
Without pause, Violet lifted the heavy silver teapot from a matching silver tray and poured. A delicate tendril of steam spiraled off the surface of the beverage for a moment before Kit brought the cup to his lips.
“So?” Violet encouraged when he failed to say more.
Kit set his teacup onto its saucer with a faint clink. “Man’s a womanizer. Has six by-blows by four different women and those are only the ones he acknowledges. One might say Jones is a man who likes to plow a field.”
Eliza felt her cheeks grow pink. A small guffaw escaped the duchess before Violet recovered herself.
“Kit,” Violet said in reproof. “Might I remind you there are ladies present, myself included. That is no kind of talk for the drawing room.”
He forced an irreverent grin from his lips. “Sorry. You are right, of course. My apologies, ladies.”
“Nevertheless, I am glad to learn that Sir Silas is not a man to whom my dear friend should direct her time or attentions.” Violet tapped a thoughtful nail against the scrolled sofa arm. “Of the other gentlemen who have recently extended their regards to Eliza, we know Viscount Coyle and Mr. Washburn are not to be received, the both of them known fortune hunters forever on the lookout for a likely heiress to replenish their pocketbooks.”
“What of Lord Luffensby?” Eliza said. “He sent me that very pleasant book of sonnets.” Wordsworth, she recalled with pleasure, the poet one of her favorites.
“Of course. I met him only once and very briefly but he struck me as a most amiable man. Very considerate and gently spoken.”
A soft but unmistakable snort erupted from Kit.
Violet shot him another look, one of exasperation this time. “Pray do not tell me there is something amiss with Lord Luffensby too? Surely not. I know his cousin and she gave me to understand that he has a most comfortable income and no predilections for the usual vices.”
“No, not the usual ones, that’s for certain.”
Violet waited for a long moment. “Oh, do go on before Eliza and I both expire of curiosity.”
“I am not sure I ought to say. As you already reminded me, there are ladies present.” Kit paused, glanced at Eliza. “Unmarried ladies.”
“Well, dear heavens, what is it? Surely it cannot be so terrible Eliza cannot be allowed to hear. And it isn’t as if she is a miss just out of the schoolroom.”
Kit tapped a considering finger against his lips. “He has a nickname among certain fellows. Lord Poofensby.”
Poofensby? Eliza frowned. Was Kit referring to the man’s wardrobe? Luffensby did tend toward being a bit of a dandy but nothing too extreme. She looked over at Violet, whose brows were also furrowed in confusion.
“I am sorry but you’ll have to be clearer,” Violet said.
“Clearer?” Kit rolled his eyes, then heaved a beleaguered sigh. “You know, for a woman who reads Greek and Latin and speaks five languages, you can sometimes be remarkably ignorant.”
“There is no need to be insulting. Just say it out. I am sure it cannot be so very bad.”
“All right. He . . . um . . . has a liking for men.”
“Well, what is so remarkable about that? A great many gentlemen enjoy the company of others of their sex. I don’t see why you are making such a— Oh.” Violet broke off, her eyebrows rising. “Oh! Oooh.”
Eliza looked between them, still not entirely understanding the message that had just been passed. Then suddenly she remembered a bit of text she had read once in one of her books on ancient history about men who cared for other men in an amorous way. She had found the notion quite astonishing at the time, yet never considered such things might still go on. Certainly not here in present-day England!
A fresh blush stole over her cheeks.
“Quite so.” Kit stretched out his legs, crossed them at the ankle. “Not the sort of fellow likely to give you a family, assuming that is what you want?”
A family, Eliza thought, was exactly what she wanted. It was the single most important reason she had decided to find a husband and wed. Her shoulders dipped, her spirits disheartened by the entire conversation.
“Well, who else is there?” Violet withdrew a white silk handkerchief from her dress pocket, then removed her spectacles and began to polish the lenses. “You have received so many bouquets and trinkets, there must be someone suitable in the bunch.”
“But there is not,” Eliza bemoaned. “Oh, Violet, don’t you see, it is simply no use. They are all of them unsuitable in one way or another. Either they are after my fortune or they have some dreadful personal difficulty they wish to conceal through a convenient marriage.”
Violet slipped her eyeglasses back on, then reached out and patted the top of Eliza’s hand. “Now, do not let this discourage you. The Season has not even begun yet. There is no telling all the eligible bachelors who will be arriving in the city over the next few weeks. Men who would give their eyeteeth to have you for their wife.”