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The Courtship

Windham - 0.5

by

Grace Burrowes

This story is for every woman who thinks she doesn’t fit in and isn’t worthy of notice. You may not fit in, but that’s precisely because you are indeed worthy of notice.

One

“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?”

“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?”

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 bird’s 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, but 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.”

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