A Duke of Her Own

Page 29


“Oh, Leopold,” Lisette said. “I thought you had decided to marry him, Eleanor. I’m sure you told him so earlier.”
“He did ask me,” Eleanor said defensively.
“Really? He looked so surprised.” There wasn’t an ounce of condemnation in Lisette’s tone. Clearly, if she wanted to marry someone, she would simply go ahead and announce the impending nuptials. “No, I don’t wish to marry Leopold.”
Eleanor felt quite relieved. Well, of course she was relieved, because she had lost her head and announced her intention to marry Villiers, though she would have backed down if Lisette had strong feelings for the duke. Possibly.
“He does have lovely hair,” Lisette said. “I never really thought of him as a husband.” She bent her head to the side and peered at him.
“Why are you bending your neck?”
“People are so interesting viewed sideways,” she said. “Just look at Leopold, for example. His nose is even bigger from the side.”
Eleanor bent her neck but began to sag to the side so she straightened quickly. It must be the Champagne on top of rum punch.
“I wouldn’t mind marrying Leopold,” Lisette continued. “Leopold and Lisette sound quite nice together. Almost as nice as Lancelot and Lisette. What’s more, he saved me from a quite savage dog this afternoon.” She looked at Eleanor. “Did you hear about what happened to me?”
Eleanor managed a smile. “It was my puppy, remember, darling?”
Lisette blinked. “Oh, of course it was!” Her smile was a little forced. “I’ve been fearful of dogs since I was attacked by a mongrel in the village square. It was nearly the size of a wolf, starving to death, I expect. The villagers had to shoot it.”
“That must have been awful,” Eleanor said flatly.
“But that’s not what we were talking about. We were talking of marrying Villiers. You know, I am going to think about that very seriously. Thank you for suggesting it. My aunt Marguerite can be so annoying sometimes. Do you know that we almost never have visitors? I expect that people come to your house all the time, don’t they?”
“At times.”
“I feel as if my spirit is trapped here.” She flung open her arms and knocked Eleanor’s glass to the floor. “Oh, well, it must be time for supper,” she said, glancing at the spilled drink. “I’ll tell Popper that he should ring the bell this minute. Dinner!” she called, waving to the room at large.
They all looked up. Eleanor’s mother was obviously enjoying a comfortable coze with the squire’s wife.
“Time to eat,” Lisette said cheerfully. “Eleanor is getting tipsy and dropped her glass.”
Eleanor quickly straightened her back again and tried to look sober.
“Since Popper isn’t here, I’ll inform a footman,” Lisette said. She darted out the door and a moment later they heard the dinner gong.
“Lady Lisette is remarkably spontaneous,” Villiers said, appearing at Eleanor’s side. His voice was far more admiring than she appreciated.
“She has always had that quality,” Eleanor said.
“We spend a great deal of our time hemmed in by customs and manners,” he said thoughtfully.
Manners were certainly not Lisette’s strong suit, but Eleanor kept her mouth shut.
Squire Thestle was a tall, thin man who had powdered his hair so heavily that little snowfalls kept drifting to his shoulders and then sliding, as if down a mountain slope, to the floor. He had melancholy eyes that reminded Eleanor of Oyster after a bout of incontinence and a scolding. His wife was even taller than he, and certainly broader in the shoulders.
Strangely enough, these homely parents had produced a remarkably beautiful son. With a brilliant smile, Lisette introduced Eleanor to Sir Roland. “Lady Eleanor, I know that you will be so pleased to meet Roland. Or Roly-Poly, as we used to call him. Roly, will you escort Lady Eleanor to her seat, please?”
Sir Roland clearly didn’t care to be reminded of this nickname; he looked at Lisette with the respectful dislike one reserves for a venomous viper. Eleanor certainly understood that feeling. She was starting to remember just how much she used to dread her annual summer visits to Knole House, before Lisette’s mother died and their families drifted apart.
By five minutes later she was feeling much better. Roland didn’t look at her with cool eyes that made her feel as if he was secretly laughing at her. Lisette had been right about his Roman nose, but she forgot to add how handsome a nose like that could be when it was paired with a deep lower lip and a strong chin. A Grecian chin, didn’t she say?
Whatever kind of chin it was, she liked it. And Roland apparently liked her as well. They found so many agreeable subjects of conversation that she had to remind herself to turn now and then and ask the squire a few more questions about the birds nesting in the church steeple.
The admiration in Roland’s eyes was very soothing. “I’m so surprised that I’ve never met you before,” he was saying now.
“I find Almack’s boring,” Eleanor said, ignoring the fact that she was there every Wednesday last season. No one who’d seen her in April would recognize her now. “So tedious…All the same people, and everyone on his best behavior.”
“I know just what you mean,” Roland said, looking at her a little shyly. He had nice eyelashes. Not as thick as Villiers’s, she noticed, but long and curling. “How do you like to entertain yourself, Lady Eleanor?” He caught himself and actually turned a little pink. “I certainly didn’t mean that in an improper manner.”
Anne answered him from across the table, which was a breach of etiquette, but it was that sort of dinner party. “Eleanor does what every woman does for entertainment.”
Villiers cut a glance at Eleanor and she could see laughter in his eyes. Anne was definitely the worse for all that rum punch, not to mention the Champagne. Popper seemed to have decided that the best way to survive the evening was to float all the unwanted guests in a sea of bubbles.
“And what is that?” Roland asked, looking adorably interested.
Eleanor smiled at him. He was as fresh and sweet as an early peach. For all he must be older than she was, he seemed younger. He looked like someone who was ready to fall in love.
“We watch men, of course,” Anne said with a tiny, ladylike hiccup. “Men are endlessly amusing.”
Eleanor had discovered that if she leaned toward Roland, his eyes slid down to her breasts as if he couldn’t stop himself. And when he looked back up at her face, there was something in the depths of his eyes that made her shift in her chair.
“I can’t imagine why you aren’t married,” he said, pitching his voice below the hum of conversation.
She was boggled for a moment. If she admitted to her own ruling about dukes, she sounded like a snobbish fool. On the other hand, if she admitted to being tenuously engaged to Villiers, she would have to stop flirting. Rather than decide, or dissemble, she turned the topic back to Roland. “What do you do for recreation, sir?”
“I write. Day and night, I write poetry.” He met her eyes again, steadily. “I feel as if we shall definitely meet many times in our lives, Lady Eleanor.”
Her heart skipped a beat at the pure intensity in his gaze. “Ah—I hope so.”