A Duke of Her Own
That was true, too. Except for the people he peed on, of course. But there hadn’t been all that many.
By the time Eleanor bathed and Oyster had arrived, she was feeling better. She put on a dressing gown and scooped Oyster into her lap to sit by the fire. He was really too fat to sit comfortably in anyone’s lap, but he loved it, and she loved it. So they sat together while he squirmed and wriggled, and got short bristly hairs all over her lap.
“You need to grow up and stop this indiscriminate peeing,” she told him.
He wasn’t much of a talker, more of a nuzzler, so he nuzzled and begged for more scratching until Eleanor decided that she ought to dress. It would be a disaster if Villiers arrived before she was downstairs to blunt her mother’s ambitions.
“What if I wear the cherry cotton with the gauze overlay?” she asked Willa. It was one of her old gowns, rather than Anne’s, but she felt too tired to achieve decadence.
Willa had spent the last two hours emptying the trunks that Eleanor had brought with her for this short, casual trip to the country. “There’s no cherry cotton here, my lady,” she said, adding, “My mistress selected your gowns herself and she had to remove some garments in order to accommodate those she brought for you to wear.”
Eleanor sighed. “I have nothing to wear that wasn’t handpicked by my sister?”
Willa shook her head.
She might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. “In that case, why don’t you choose something for me?”
“The figured silk,” Willa suggested. “You can wear it with small side panniers.” She held it up.
“It is beautiful, but there isn’t much of it,” Eleanor pointed out. “If I lean over, the bodice might open almost to my waist.”
“If you’re not comfortable, we can pin some lace at the neckline,” Willa said reassuringly. “I’ll put lace in your hair as well. We needn’t put a touch of powder in your hair; did you see Lady Lisette?”
“Lisette never wears powder,” Eleanor said. “Nor wigs.”
“Then we shan’t either,” Willa said, snapping her small white teeth together. Obviously Anne had filled her in on the matrimonial sweepstakes, so to speak.
An hour or so later Eleanor wandered down the stairs. It was some comfort to know that she truly was looking her best. Her hair would never be the spun gold color of Lisette’s. But she liked the way it glowed, with a kind of brandy burnish. It was thick too, thicker than Lisette’s, and would hold a curl, or fall sleek and straight, whatever she wished.
Willa had piled it on top of her head, with gorgeous little silk twists among the curls. And even though she still felt that the gown would look better in a candlelit drawing room, it was exquisite. The lace had looked foolish, so there she was with her breasts on view, which was clearly what Anne had in mind.
She brought Oyster down with her too. He had been very good the last few hours, but he was just a puppy. He couldn’t stay in the room all day. Willa had treated him like an accessory and tied little knots of silk on his collar so that he matched her dress.
The sheets had disappeared and the house was as silent and ordinary looking as any gentleman’s country house, barring a complete lack of servants. She poked her head into the sitting room, and then wandered into the library. The shelves were crammed with books reaching the ceiling, though on close inspection most of them turned out to be books about music, which was disappointing.
At length, Oyster gave a little yelp, and she realized that it would be an unfortunate way to begin her visit if he were to anoint the library rug.
The library opened to the garden, so she tugged open the tall doors and walked out onto the terrace. To her surprise, the entire household was clustered on a grassy slope at the bottom of the garden, maids in white aprons and footmen in livery, all seated on what appeared to be the backdrops that had formerly hung in the entryway. There even seemed to be some children tucked in front.
At that moment the door at her back opened and a deep voice drawled, “Perhaps they’ve all been taken by the fairies.”
“Villiers!” she exclaimed, turning. And there was Anne as well, smiling with gleeful pleasure.
The duke bowed and kissed her hand. Eleanor found herself sorry that she’d left her gloves upstairs, if only so he could strip one off again. Then she met his eyes and colored. He was damnably good at guessing her thoughts.
“Where is everyone?” Anne asked.
“They’re out there, in the gardens. Do come onto the terrace. There is a very pleasant arrangement of chairs and—Oh, no, I dropped Oyster’s leash!”
Sure enough, a plump little figure was tearing across the lawn, yipping madly.
“The famous Oyster,” Villiers said.
“He can be a trifle overenthusiastic,” Eleanor said.
“He sheds,” Anne said disloyally. “And he seems to think he’s irresistible. Let’s not even mention the fact that he sprinkles constantly.”
“He’s just a puppy!”
“Now, now, no squabbling,” Villiers said.
There was a piercing shriek from the lawn, followed by another. The little group seemed to explode, children running and wheeling.
“What the devil?” Villiers said, starting forward.
Anne laughed. “He’s already peed on someone, Ellie.”
Eleanor began running after Villiers. As she grew closer she saw with a sinking heart that Oyster did appear to be the center of the fracas. He was dashing madly in a circle, yapping with the sort of strained excitement she associated with household accidents.
There were a great many children, at least seven or eight, milling about in blue pinafores. And still the screaming: she just couldn’t see who was doing it. Oyster ran toward her, barking hysterically, his ears flopping. He was trying to tell her something…
The butler was dashing after Oyster. “Popper,” she called, “what on earth—”
But then the screaming stopped, the knot of people separated, and Eleanor saw the heart of the matter. Lisette was nestled in Villiers’s arms, one arm around his neck, head against his shoulder.
“I’m very much afraid that Lady Lisette was surprised by your canine,” Popper said, breathing hard. “As I mentioned, she is afraid of dogs.”
Long ago Eleanor had decided that what made Lisette truly beautiful was that she rarely showed emotion. There was nothing to prevent appreciation of her blue eyes, her perfectly straight nose, her pale rosebud lips.
Even now, when she was apparently terrified by Oyster, her face was expressionless: no anxiously squeezed eyes or pursed mouth, or ungraceful pant. Instead she was curled in Villiers arms, looking like a portrait come to quiet life.
Eleanor reached down and picked up her squat little dog, which at least made him stop yapping. “Scared?” she said. “She is frightened by Oyster? He must have startled her.”
Brushing past Popper, she walked over to Villiers. “Hello, Lisette.”
Lisette didn’t answer. Her eyes were now closed. “Surely she didn’t faint?” Eleanor said to Villiers, not believing it for a moment.
He looked down at Lisette with a rather queer expression on his face. “I think she’s recovering from the shock. When I came up, she was utterly beside herself with terror. Of course, I swept her up and out of harm’s way, but it took a moment to sink in.”