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The Duke and His Duchess The Courtship
Two Novellas of the Windham Family
By Grace Burrowes
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Grace Burrowes
All rights reserved.
"One hears he takes snuff only from his mistresses' naked breasts."
Esther Himmelfarb rearranged her cards and stifled a snort at one of Charlotte Pankhurst's more ridiculous observations.
Herodia Bellamy tossed the queen of diamonds onto the table. "One hears that he bathes frequently, but seldom alone."
"A crowded undertaking," Esther murmured, "given the man's size in relation to the average bathing tub. Your turn, Lady Zephora."
"I know for a fact," Lady Zephora said softly, "that both Lord Anthony and Lord Percival have been ordered by Her Grace, their mama, to take brides this year."
So much for whist. Esther continued to study her cards while the ladies catalogued Colonel Lord Percival Windham's many positive attributes.
Their raptures matched Esther's list of the man's shortcomings almost exactly.
"He's soooo handsome," Charlotte cooed. "And it's all genuine — the golden hair, the muscles, the height."
"The dreamy blue eyes," Herodia added. "When he looks at you, it's as if he's trying to convey that he loves you simply in the way he regards you."
Not to be outdone, Zephora stated what Charlotte and Herodia had no doubt heard repeatedly from their mamas. "His wife would always have a courtesy title, and someday she might become the next Duchess of Moreland."
Which was the outside of too much, since it contemplated the death of the present duke — a gentleman as vigorous as he was dignified — as well as the death of the current ducal heir, Lord Pembroke, an upright soul whose greatest sin was that he'd fathered only two girl children in ten years of marriage.
"Consider," Esther said, gathering up the cards, "the present duchess would be your mama-in-law when you married Lord Percival. If she has the authority to recall commissioned officers from their billets in service to His Majesty, imagine the power she'd wield over a mere daughter-in-law."
"Lord Percy wouldn't allow her to intrude." Charlotte sniffed. "You are just jealous, Esther, because a girl without a title or a dowry can't look so high."
The jab was unexpected, since these conclusions were seldom spoken aloud. They were accepted as common knowledge, which usually allowed Esther the backhanded gift of a nonentity's privacy.
"Esther is pretty, well-spoken, well-educated in the domestic arts, and wellborn," Herodia pointed out. "Cease carping, Charlotte, lest the gentlemen overhear you."
This rebuke did not feel to Esther like a defense, because it wasn't. Herodia was seizing an opportunity to appear superior to Charlotte, nothing more.
"I can look as high as I please," Esther said, shuffling the deck into a neat stack. "Though looking alone holds little gratification. Shall I deal again?"
As long as lords Percival and Anthony Windham were in the room chatting up the hostess by the punch bowl, Esther would have to remain as the fourth in the game. Play — or what passed for it — resumed, while Esther sent up a silent prayer that the next three weeks went by as quickly — and as painlessly — as possible.
* * *
"I know that look, Percy." Tony kept his voice down, thank God, because Lady Morrisette was only several yards away, latched on to the arm of His Grace the Duke of Quimbey.
Percival Windham did not pause in his perusal of the blond young lady seated at a card table across the parlor. She had a stillness to her, a serenity that drew the eye more than all the flirtatious glances and powdered bosoms in the room.
"What look?" Percival asked.
"You're falling in love again. I've seen it a dozen times at least. Her Grace will rejoice to hear of it."
"I do not fall in love, Anthony. I fall into bed, or occasionally into linen closets, private boudoirs, secluded bowers, that sort of thing." Percival took a sip of decent punch and turned a direct stare on his younger brother. "And Her Grace will not be hearing a peep out of you, not unless you want me to apprise her of a certain tryst you had with Miss Gladys Holsopple before leaving Town."
Tony's smile was hopelessly unguarded. "Gladys Holsopple is toothsome and not too much concerned for propriety when nobody's looking. An estimable female. And you don't have to worry about my peaching on you — we've Mannering for that."
Mannering, the valet they'd be sharing for the duration of the house party. Percival turned his thoughts in a more sanguine direction and gestured slightly with his glass.
"Who's the pretty card player, Tony?"
While appearing to arrange the lace at his cuff, Tony glanced across the room. "Herodia Bellamy. Well dowered, her papa is said to have Bute's ear. Dances nicely and doesn't titter."
Tony was one of the best reconnaissance officers ever dispatched to Canada — where his talents had clearly been wasted. "Not her. She damned near tried to dance her way into my bedroom at Heckenbaum's last week. The pretty one." The one who made even arranging her cards an exercise in grace.
"Lady Zephora Needham. Her papa's Earl Needham, and they say it takes two hours to arrange all them bows in the chit's hair."
Tony in a teasing mood was a burden, indeed.
"Not her, and not that gossiping Pankhurst twit, either. The one with the unpowdered hair. I haven't seen her before."
"Her." Tony's smile was replaced by a frown. "Not your type at all, Perce. Esther Himmelfarb. Well-bred, well-read. The poor relation invited to make up the numbers when somebody cancels — at the very last minute. Grandpapa's an earl, but she didn't take, according to Gladys. She's the sort to play chaperone when the proper chaperones are off in the butler's pantry with the likes of you and me."
Himmelfarb, a prosaic Teutonic name, suggesting connections to the heavily Germanized royal court.
Or suggesting ... Percival studied the young lady. Blond hair was severely braided into a coronet that would accentuate her height when she stood. A single spray of rosebuds had been woven into the back of her coiffure, the barest ornamentation, when fashion allowed women to adorn their hair with birds' nests and battleships.
Northern lights came to mind. Cool, beautiful, unexpected, and ethereal. Miss Esther Himmelfarb had a complexion other women sought to achieve with cosmetics and generally failed. Perfect pale skin with more rosebud pink tingeing her high cheekbones, and not a beauty patch to be seen. Her dress was a sky-blue gown de chemise, no panniers, and not much bustle, of soft velvet and expertly tailored.
All in all, a lovely woman, one upon whom primness sat more temptingly than all the wiles of a beckoning siren.
Percival watched as she shuffled the deck in tidy, economical moves. "Dallying with her would be a great deal of effort." A challenge.
Tony's eyes narrowed. "And yet you're considering it. Ruin that girl's reputation, and she has nothing left. I'll call you out myself, tattle to Her Grace —"
"You are feeling the effects of the punch, Anthony. I do not dally with ladies barely out of the schoolroom."
"Unless they're widowed, fast, or fairly determined."
Percy's lips quirked up. "And very, very discreet."
A moment of fraternal silence fell, during which the Duke of Quimbey, a handsome single man yet in his prime, laughed merrily at something Lady Morrisette said. The ladies at the card table all turned to regard Quimbey, the greatest prize on the marriage market for the past several Seasons.
"Thank God for Quimbey," Percival said.
He'd spoken a trifle too loudly. Esther Himmelfarb swiveled her gaze to regard him, while the other ladies continued to ogle Quimbey with longing glances.
God in heaven, Anthony, I do believe you're right this time.
Green eyes regarded the Moreland spare with a blend of humor, condescension, and ... pity? There were depths in Esther Himmelfarb's gaze, depths of reserve and self-possession that made a red-blooded male want to take down all that golden, shot-silk hair. To provoke her to blushes and sighs and ... passion.
"Right about what, Perce?"
Had he spoken aloud?
"We'd best find a housemaid who can provide a distraction for Mannering. Can't have any tales getting back to Her Grace when she's decreed we're both to be wed by year's end."
* * *
House parties entailed dancing. This was Holy Writ.
What better opportunity to look over the possible flirts and affairs, and to show oneself off to same, than the endless rotation of partners encountered on the dance floor?
Esther loathed the dance floor as her personal purgatory, until the final set concluded, and she found herself on the arm of — Everlasting Powers forefend! — Percival Windham. For her, the Almighty was now fashioning circles even of purgatory.
"Miss Himmelfarb, I believe?" His lordship winged an arm and smiled graciously. "Shall I have us introduced, or in the informality of the occasion, will you allow me to join you at supper?"
A more calculating man would have offered to escort her to whoever had the honor of dining with her, but then, Lord Percival likely did not have to be calculating.
"I will happily accept your escort to the buffet, my lord." Where Michael might rescue her or Lady Morrisette would find some dowager needing company. Esther laced her gloved hand around Lord Percival's arm, only to encounter a small surprise.
Or not so small.
Gossip had not lied. The man was muscular in the extreme, and this close, he was also of sufficient height to uphold the fiction that he'd protect Esther from any brigands or wolves wandering about Lady Morrisette's parlor.
"Does your family hail from Kent, Miss Himmelfarb? I know most of the local families and cannot recall Himmelfarbs among them."
The question was perfectly pleasant, and so too was his lordship's scent. Not the scent of exertion or the standard rose-scented rice powder — he wasn't wearing a wig — but something elusive ...
"You're twitching your nose like a thoughtful bunny, Miss Himmelfarb. Are you in anticipation of something particularly succulent among the supper offerings?"
He smiled down at her as he spoke, and for a moment, Esther could not fashion a reply. Of all the times for Charlotte Pankhurst to be right about a man's blue, blue eyes ... "I'm trying to fathom the fragrance you're wearing, my lord. It's pleasant."
"If I didn't know better, I'd think from your expression that you do not approve of men wearing pleasant scents." His tone, amused, teasing, suggested that sometimes, all he wore was a pleasant scent — and that just-for-you smile.
They came to a halt in the buffet line, which meant ... Esther was doomed to sharing a meal with the man.
Lord Percival leaned nearer, as if confiding something amid the noise and bustle of the first night of a lively, extended social gathering. "Bay rum lacks imagination, don't you think? I shall wear it when I'm a settled fellow with children in my nursery. There's cedar in the scent I wear, reminds me of Canada. You're partial to spicy scents yourself."
He was inviting a reciprocal confidence from her with that observation. The notion of trading secrets with Percival Windham made something beneath Esther's heart twang — disagreeably, of course. "Lavender, with a touch of a few other things."
While Esther stood beside Lord Percival, he leaned even closer and subtly inhaled through his patrician nose. Horses did that, gathered each other's scent upon acquaintance. And like a filly, Esther held still for his lordship's olfactory inspection and resisted the urge — the unladylike, disconcerting, thoroughly inappropriate urge — to treat him to a similar examination.
"My dear" — his lordship had straightened only a bit — "why is My Lady Hair Bows staring daggers in this direction?"
My lady ...? Then ... my dear?
He was a very presuming fellow, even for a duke's spare, and yet Esther felt the urge to smile back at him. "I'm not sure what you mean, my lord."
"You know exactly what I mean, Miss Himmelfarb." He picked up a plate, though they were still some distance from any sustenance. "Now the Needy girl is at her elbow, pouring brandy on the flames of gossip. You and I will be engaged by this time tomorrow, I don't doubt."
Did one correct a duke's spare when he made light of marriage to a woman within staring distance of professional spinsterhood?
Yes, one did.
"Her name is Needham, my lord. And I should think an engagement unlikely when you have yet to ask for my hand and I have given no indication I would accept your suit."
The light in his eyes changed, going from friendly — yes, that was the word — to something more intent. "You are an impertinent woman." This did not, unfortunately, sound as if it put him off.
"As compared to you, my lord, who are somehow a pertinent man? Or perhaps pertinacious might apply?"
That was rude, intended to put the perishing idiot in his place, but it only added approval to the warmth in his gaze. His eyes crinkled at the corners, his lips curved up to reveal perfect, straight white teeth in a dazzling, alarmingly intimate smile.
"We're going to get on famously, Miss Himmelfarb. I adore impertinent women."
Esther knew not what to say to that. The line shuffled forward while Charlotte, Herodia, and Zephora glared a firing squad of daggers, and Esther tried to ignore the scent of cedar and spices.
* * *
"You most assuredly do not look like you're enjoying yourself."
Esther glanced around the ballroom, where guests were milling before the dancing resumed, then cast a brief, exasperated look at her cousin, the Honorable Michael Adelman.
"Could you enjoy yourself while the tops of your breasts were engaged in conversation by one man after another, and half those men married to wives busily ogling some other fellow's falls?"
Michael's lids drooped in a manner he likely did not intend to be seductive, though it made his good looks even more alluring. "I think the Needham girl might accept my suit. She's said to be well dowered. The party lasts only three weeks, Esther."
Remorse had Esther patting Michael's sleeve. "Three weeks is nothing. We shall contrive. Compliment her coiffure lavishly." That was the purpose of the outing, in fact — to secure an advantageous match for Michael, and as expeditiously as possible. Michael shuddered beside Esther on a gilded green-velvet sofa set into an alcove off the ballroom's dance floor.
"How does one consummate a union with a wife who must sleep with a wooden pillow, lest she disturb the architecture of her hairstyle? I lie awake at night and fret over this, you know."
He was her cousin, and Esther loved him, but he was only a man and therefore not much afflicted with insight.
"You capture her heart so completely that for you she'll give up hours of torment having her hair dressed and content herself with elaborate wigs, while leaving her crowning glory in the state intended by the Almighty. We'd best mingle. Lady Morrisette has twice smiled this way."
Michael rose and assisted Esther to her feet. "God help me," he murmured. "Our hostess is reported to hold these gatherings mostly as a means of seeing to her own entertainment." He bowed over Esther's hand. "Say nice things about me to the Needmore girl."
And of course Esther would, for despite his dark good looks, height, and charm, without a decent match, Michael's future held little worth looking forward to.
With effort, Esther did not grimace, for it appeared the tops of her breasts were again to engage in conversation. "Sir Jasper." She gave him her hand, and because he was standing so close, when he bowed over it, his nose nearly touched her décolletage.
"The sets are forming, Miss Himmelfarb, and I would happily partner you."
Something in his tone implied that his partnering was available in locations other than the dance floor, and on short notice. Sir Jasper Layton was not yet thirty, had all his teeth, and was as handsome as a bad bout with smallpox could leave a man. Three beauty patches and a heavy hand with the face powder did more to call attention to his scars than hide them, though.
Esther manufactured a smile. "Thank you, sir, and tell me how your sisters go on."
He appeared surprised to recall he had sisters, though both attended the same court functions as Esther and many of the ladies present at the house party. Soon enough the steps of the dance saw him partnering other women, and Esther could breathe a sigh of relief.
"Are you concentrating on the steps, or have you taken me into dislike?" Percival Windham bowed to her jauntily, took both of her hands, and as the dance called for, moved closer. "Or is Sir Jasper overstepping?"
Esther dropped his hands, turned her back, smiled over her shoulder — who had chosen this particular dance? — and turned back to take Lord Percival's hands. "I'm concentrating on the steps."
They promenaded down the line, hands joined before them. "You'd rather be in the library, curled up with a book by the fire, reading French poems, or possibly German. Tell me, Miss Himmelfarb, do Germans write poetry?"
He was teasing, but also studying her as he smiled that particular, personal smile.
Esther dropped his hands and turned a full circle. "I'd be reading Shakespearean sonnets up in my room. Anybody can come upon a lady in the library."
Though her room would be stuffy and dank because Esther lacked sufficient strength to pry open its single window.
Excerpted from The Duke and His Duchess The Courtship by Grace Burrowes. Copyright © 2012 Grace Burrowes. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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