Her Grace, the Duchess of Broughton, gazed adoringly down at her baby in his cradle. His little cheeks had taken on the soft, rosy color of a peach, and the fuzz upon his head had the silky texture of down. Cushioned, as he was, in a profusion of lace-edged pillows and snowy linens, and weighing only slightly more than ten pounds, he seemed rather small to be a marquess; but every time his mother peered down at him, she felt the deep maternal pang of love.
Her husband, the duke, came up behind her and put his arms about her waist.
"Isn't he perfect?" Louisa whispered, her cheek pressed closely to his.
"Perfect," Robert agreed. His voice grew husky. "I can hardly wait to make another just like him."
As his hands began to rove, Louisa turned and threw her arms about his neck. "Oh, Robert!"
Moments later, she emerged, shaking from their embrace.
"We've been so blissful." The heavy sigh accompanying this statement alerted her husband to the probability that something of a devious nature was in her mind. "Isn't it a shame that everyone cannot be as happy as we?"
Robert, who by now knew his clever wife very well, asked warily, "Whom precisely did you have in mind?"
Louisa sighed wistfully again, and he suppressed an indulgent laugh.
"I was thinking of Ned," she said. "Ned and Christina."
The sound of the first name so startled him, Robert gave an incredulous jerk. "Ned? As in Windermere? You cannot be serious."
"Of course I am serious, my love."
Robert groaned. "Now, Louisa, you cannot possibly be thinking of finding Ned a wife?
"And why not?"
"Why not?" Robert began to lift his hands, then dropped them helplessly at his sides. He spluttered, "Because Ned's a scoundrel, that's why!"
Louisa stared at him with hurt filling her eyes. "You shouldn't say that. Not when Ned is your very best friend."
"My very best??" Robert gaped. "I've never called him anything of the sort."
"But you asked him to stand godfather to our precious Robert Edward!"
"Louisa ... ." Exasperation wrinkled Robert's brow. "That was your idea, not mine."
"Oh ... well ..." Louisa waved that inconvenient fact away. "Well, perhaps it was. But you agreed! And just look at the good that has resulted. Ned has called to see his godson every day since you asked, and I'm certain he is drinking less."
This was true, and Robert was willing to concede the point. Though fond of Ned, in a rather theoretical way, Robert had resisted Louisa's suggestion that the Earl of Windermere be asked to act as patron to their baby. He had no desire to run the risk of having his son influenced by one of the most notorious rakes in all of Britain.
Secretly, too, Robert had dreaded the prospect of broaching such a tender subject with one whose devilish humor discouraged any sort of serious discourse. But Ned's reaction to Robert's proposal had surprised him.
When asked to stand as sponsor to his lordship, the Marquess of Drayton, Ned had been so taken off guard that for once the sardonic grin had been completely wiped from his lips. A curious glow had flickered in his eyes, momentarily replacing the satirical glint that always seemed to linger there. He had accepted the honor gravely, then with an immediate reversion to his normal manner had proposed toast upon toast to the young marquess until Robert had perforce called a halt.
"But, Louisa"?Robert resumed his argument?"even if Ned has his better moments, I still cannot conceive of a girl who would be suitable for a man of his reputation."
"I was thinking of Christina."
Louisa stared at him as if he had suddenly lost his mind. "Why, your sister, of course! Have you forgotten her altogether?"
"My sister!" Now Robert was truly aghast. "You mean to say that I should marry my own flesh and blood to a man of Ned's repute?"
"Yes. Don't you think they would suit?"
"Suit!" Clapping one hand to his forehead, Robert paused in horrified contemplation. "They would suit a great deal too well, if you only knew. Mixing Christina with Ned would be like throwing lard upon a fire."
"What a horrid way to talk about your sister! Lard, indeed!"
"Now, Louisa, you know perfectly well I am not referring to Christina's figure. It couldn't be more elegant." Robert grimaced, as if his words had raised a dreadful thought. "If I know Ned, he will find it all too alluring."
"There, then." Louisa gave her husband a smug little smile. "What could be more perfect? Christina will be arriving tomorrow for the christening. We need only bring them together and see how they get on."
"No." Robert spoke with all the authority a duke could muster. "I simply shall not allow it, Louisa. Christina is enough of a handful as it is. Why do you think my mother sent her to that ladies' seminary for all those years?"
He paused before adding, as if the words had been wrung from his mouth, "There have been reports from the school. I did not tell you because I did not wish to shock you ...but there was something about Christina and the dancing master and a dare...." Robert took a harried breath. "Suffice it to say that she does not need a husband?or even an admirer?who remotely resembles Ned. What she needs is a good, stodgy fellow, someone dependable who will keep her in line."
"How dreadfully dull! But that is an excellent tack to take, my love. If you set yourself against them, Christina and Ned are sure to be safely wed by August."
"Louisa ... ."
As if sensing his father's mounting frustration, Lord Robert Edward awoke to emit a ragged squall.
His Grace refused to stay and be baited further. In a huff, he left the nursery, determined to consider the subject closed.
That evening, before dinner, he was taken by surprise when Louisa raised it again, this time in front of Ned.
The future godfather had come to dine and to make his daily visit of inspection. The baby and his cradle had been carried down from the nursery, so that his parents and their guest could have the pleasure of the little marquess's company before their evening meal. Ned, who was clothed in a snug-fitting coat that matched the black of his hair, had just bent over his tiny lordship's bed to scoop him up in one strong hand.
"There now, Little Ned," the earl said, settling the bundle on his forearm. His dark brows rose as he studied the sleeping baby. "Let me tell you about the adventures Uncle Ned has in store for you."
"The boy is to be called Robert," said Robert. "Not Little Ned."
"Whatever you say, Bobby boy, but I thought it the godfather's duty to name the child. And should I get nervous in church?which I might, considering how many years it's been since I've set foot in one?I might forget the name Robert entirely."
Robert grinned. "You wouldn't dare. And it's no use, Ned. You can't bait me the way you used to."
"No?" Ned sighed and shook his head. "Another of life's little pleasures gone. I suppose it is Louisa's fault. What I must have been thinking when I encouraged you to pursue her?although I never had marriage in mind, you know. Something more in the line of a lurid affair. Though considering her virginal status, I suppose ... ."
Robert was on the verge of making an angry retort, when Louisa swept into the drawing room.
"Quarreling again?" She searched her husband's face and directed him a reproachful look. "You mustn't let Ned tease you, Robert." She strolled to Ned's side and reached for her son. "Isn't he a dearest? Come here, little one."
Robert's temper waned as he watched his friend carefully hand her the swaddled bundle. Against the flame of Louisa's red hair, Ned's darker locks gleamed like the devil's own coal, but for a brief instant, the hard planes of his face had softened in greeting.
Not that a respite so short could erase the signs of dissipation from his face. Ned's frequent excesses, the dismal hours he persisted in keeping, and his penchant for riding neck-or-nothing to hounds for long weeks at a time had left their marks. Looking at him now, one might easily mistake him for a hard-living sailor, if it were not for the aristocratic lines of his nose and jaw. At one time, Robert recalled, Ned had been accounted a vastly handsome man, but his skin had grown too dark and rough to grace a drawing room and his reputation was much too soiled.
But Ned was responding to Louisa's question, and his impertinent words drove all other thoughts from Robert's mind.
"My godchild is a rare work of art?perfection itself." To Robert, he added sotto voce, "Good work, your Grace. I'm glad you finally took my advice. Didn't know you had it in you."
"Ned?" Exasperation raised a flush on Robert's face. "I would remind you that my wife is present."
Ned widened his eyes, the very picture of innocence. "But, Bobby boy, surely Louisa knows how the baby was conceived?"
"That's enough ..." Robert warned, his blood warming.
"You mustn't let Ned tease you, Robert." Louisa smiled calmly at them both, as she swayed side to side embracing their infant. "He is simply trying to conceal the fact that he envies you."
A patch of crimson appeared on each of Ned's cheeks. "Touché, Louisa." He paused, before a rare note of sincerity crept into his voice. "She is right, you know, Robert. I confess. If all God's mites were like this one, I should not mind having one myself."
Then the cynical gleam reappeared in his eyes. "But then, who knows? Perhaps I have a number already."
At Louisa's cry of admonishment, he added unrepentantly, "I was just about to tell Robert Edward about the delights I have in store for him when he gets older?say, in about thirteen years."
"Were you?" Louisa said, with a show of unconcern. "In that case, I shall tell you about the plans I have for you."
"Louisa ... " Robert had glimpsed the purposeful spark in her eye. He knew his beloved wife. She took on projects. Many kinds of projects. And it seemed she had decided to make the Earl of Windermere her next.
"Robert and I?"
"Absolve me please, Ned," Robert interjected. "I had nothing at all to do with this."
"Robert and I have been thinking, it is long past time you were married, Ned. You would make a wonderful father."
Ned stared. "You are jesting. Surely."
"No, I am not."
"But, my dear girl. Who would have me? Who would I have if it comes to that?"
"There must be someone, Ned."
"Not necessarily." He paused and then smiled knowingly. "I get it. You are worried about my succession, but you needn't concern yourself, you know. I have a cousin somewhere or other. Undoubtedly, he will make a much better earl than I."
"I am not worried about your succession." Louisa pronounced her words very clearly. "Although I daresay you could do much better by your estate. And if you took the trouble to build it up, you would have some wonderful funds to spare for my societies. But?I can see by your sour expression that that particular notion does not appeal to you."
"It does not," Ned agreed. "I will have you know that I did not come here to be abused or mistreated. Or solicited for more subscriptions. I came to see my godson, to ensure that he was being properly raised. But if this is what poor Little Ned has to look forward to?" He shook his head in mock despair.
"I told you, Louisa"?Robert chuckled at her ruffled sigh?"you've lit upon the wrong man. Better to drop the notion."
"Well ... we shall see." Louisa raised her nose in the air. "But if the perfect girl were to happen to come along ..."
"No!" Robert knew exactly what she had been about to say, and whom she had been about to mention. He did not want even the seed of Louisa's notion to be planted in Ned's fertile brain. But he could see out the corner of his eye that his vehemence had been a serious tactical mistake.
"But wait?my dear Robert ..." Ned had not failed to sense his agitation and was quick to take advantage of the chance to annoy him. "Why do I get the distinct impression there is something you are trying to conceal?"
"It is nothing." In spite of his efforts to appear unconcerned, Robert knew his words sounded curt.
"No ... " With a sigh, Louisa put on a wistful expression. "It is certainly nothing now. I had come up with the lady I thought would be the perfect match for you, but Robert says he is entirely opposed."
"Is he now?" Ned's brows rose. The glint in his eyes was more pronounced. "And who might this paragon be?"
"I am afraid that Robert has forbidden me to mention her name," Louisa said.
"Now?wait?" Robert felt himself to be at a loss. He knew what his wife was up to?she was trying to make Ned curious. Nothing like forbidden fruit to entice a rake. "There is no secret about it," Robert said, purposely nonchalant. "It was quite simply a silly idea, and so I told her. Ned will agree."
"Shall I?" Ned asked slyly. "Then why are you so flustered, Bobby boy?"
"I am not flustered! Or if I am, it is because I do not like to discuss my sister in such an outrageous way!"
"Your sister, is it?" Folding his arms across his chest, Ned leaned back against the chimney piece. Comprehension flooded his face. Comprehension ... and a flicker of some bleaker emotion. If Robert hadn't known his friend far too well, he would have called it hurt.
"Your little sister, I take it. What was her name?Catherine?"
"No, Christina," Louisa said. "She's a delightful girl?spirited, beautiful?just what I thought would be right for you. But"?she sighed dramatically again?"it is not to be."
"But, after all, why not? Surely Robert couldn't object to my meeting his sister?" Ned made an evil face.
"Why wouldn't I," Robert retorted, "when I had second thoughts about presenting you to my wife?"
In the ensuing silence, Ned went very still.
"Robert!" Louisa rushed to intervene. "What a terrible thing to say! And you know it is quite untrue. You could not wait to present me to Ned."
Deeply chagrined, Robert was relieved to see an easing in Ned's stance. He had not meant to wound his friend. He wouldn't have thought it possible in any case, if he had not just witnessed the change in Ned's expression.
But the devil would goad him!
Robert tossed a sheepish grin at his wife, grateful for her diplomacy. "I couldn't wait to show you off, that was all."
"And who better to show her to, eh Broughton, than the man who made all your happiness possible?" Ned had quickly recovered his sangfroid. "Louisa, I am not at all certain if you realize how instrumental I was in bringing about your wedded bliss. Why, if I hadn't coaxed Robert and taught him everything I know?step by lurid step?he might never have gone as far as to hold your hand."
He turned towards Robert. "You did at least hold her hand, didn't you, Broughton?"
Robert had to grin, though at times he could happily throttle Ned. Louisa was blushing, and so charmingly, Robert wanted to rush her upstairs right now. But that was to be expected around Ned. One could not be in his presence long without one's thoughts being led astray.
"That is as may be," Robert said, clearing his throat, "but my sister is entirely another matter. She's an innocent, Ned, and she'd bore you to death within a sennight."
Ned felt, rather than heard, the seriousness beneath Robert's banter. He ignored the resulting pang and waved Robert's words aside. "No need to worry," he told him. "If I make any villainous plans with respect to your sister, I promise to keep you informed. I pride myself on my transparent nature."
Robert grimaced. "How you comfort me. But I daresay Christina can take care of herself." He gave a startled sideways glance, as if he'd let slip something he shouldn't. "Not that she is anything but innocent, mind you. She is just out of school. Quite young, you know. Not your usual type."
"Sounds terribly boring," Ned reassured him.
"Indeed. After the christening, we plan to bring her out. Louisa has offered, and my mother has agreed. Mama is too old, she says, for the rigors of London."
Ned nodded, and his voice went glum. "Almack's. Court presentations. I shudder at the thought."
"I knew you wouldn't be interested."
At the sound of Robert's relief, Ned couldn't resist another barb. "But, my dear fellow ... if the chit's your sister, how could I not be intrigued? You must add me to her list of swains. I shall grovel at her feet."
But he had missed his mark. Robert merely laughed. "I'd love to see you grovel. I'd love to see you die for a woman's sighs."
"Not bloody like? Oh, pardon me, Louisa! Yourself excluded, of course. I was all prepared to grovel, but Robert threatened me bodily with a sword."
"That is very sweet of you, Ned." Louisa gave him a motherly smile before cocking her head at the sound issuing from the hall. "That is the dinner gong. Robert, would you take the baby while I ring for Nurse?"
Ned watched his friend cross the room to take his son from his wife, and a unfamiliar weight settled on his chest. They made such a pretty picture?mother, father and child. And an unusual one at that.
Dukes did not generally cradle their own offspring. Neither did duchesses for that matter. But Louisa refused to be bound by the rules that constrained them all.
And Robert was happy because of her. God knew?as did Ned?that Robert's upbringing had not been an affectionate one. No more than his own, Ned reflected with a bitter mental shrug. Eton at six. The cold indifference of schoolmasters. No protection from sadistic senior boys for whom one had to fag. The early separation from parents, who had no particular interest in one anyway.
And, yet, here was Robert, with two devoted spaniels at his feet, billing and cooing over his little marquess like any nursery maid, and?if he only could see himself?eyeing Louisa as if he could hardly restrain himself until time to go to bed.
The emptiness in his own life in comparison suddenly pressed on Ned's heart like a blacksmith's anvil on a pedestal of stone. Gads, but he was envious!
But a rake had no business even thinking of marriage. It was quite all right for Robert, who had always been strait-laced, and it undoubtedly would be for Robert's sister, too. Her middle name was certain to be Virtue.
But no decent girl would consider marrying a man with Ned's reputation. And he had had enough of the other kind to last him a lifetime.
With the baby asleep in his arms, Robert preceded them from the room, meeting the nurse in the hall. Louisa accepted Ned's arm.
"Robert is right, you know," Ned said to her in a confidential voice as they strolled towards the dining parlor. "I would make the very devil of a husband."
"I think you are sadly mistaken. We would so very much like to see you happy. And I cannot help feeling that the perfect match is awaiting you just around the corner."
Ned chuckled in response, but his laughter was forced. "I wasn't made for such things, my dear. My life has been a dismal trail of debauchery and seduction." He tried to lighten his tone. "Besides, I know you are wrong, because the hair on the back of my neck is lying completely flat."
Louisa paused, holding him back. "I beg your pardon?"
"Didn't Robert tell you?" Louisa shook her head, so he continued, "I have the most extraordinary gift. When marriage is in the air, the hair on the back of my neck always rises, the way a dog's does when it senses a threat. It comes in quite handy, I assure you. It's got me out of a sticky spot or two."
This wasn't true, of course, but it was his usual tale, designed to entertain his hostesses, and Ned almost believed it himself now. "I felt it quite strongly when you and Robert were courting," he said. "Wagered a hundred pounds at White's on the outcome of your affair and made a nice, tidy bundle when you married. Paid off my immediate debts and carried myself for months on the surplus."
Louisa dimpled as they resumed walking. "And you say you've felt nothing of the sort since I mentioned Christina?"
"Nary a twinge."
But the strange thing was, Ned felt a frisson right now, just at the sound of her name.
Louisa's smirk must have had something to do with it. She looked as if she knew something he did not know, and the result was, the hair on the scruff of his neck was standing straight up. He shivered.
Louisa watched him closely. "You're certain you feel nothing at all?"
"That is just as well, I suppose." As she swept towards her place at the table, however, Louisa still managed to look uncommonly delighted. "For, as he said, Robert is quite opposed to the idea."
Ned pushed her chair in, and she glanced back at him with a secretive smile. "Quite adamantly opposed."
* * *
As Lady Christina Lindsay descended from the carriage which had carried her up from Bath, she spied a red-headed whirlwind descending from the steps of Broughton House. Louisa embraced her, then gave the coachman his instructions, before drawing her quickly into the house.
Christina decided, as she did every time she saw her new sister-in-law, however brief their visits tended to be, that she liked Louisa very much. She had not been certain what sort of reception to expect when she had been foisted upon Louisa by a mother who could not be bothered to come to London herself. The Dowager Duchess of Broughton had made it clear that her family should expect no more of her efforts on their behalf. Her husband's death, she said, which had occurred a year before Robert's marriage, had robbed her of all desire to live.
From Christina's perspective, the Dowager did not appear to have altered at all.
Her mother's normal failings were only half the reason for Christina's nervousness today. By now, she was certain her sister-in-law must have been made aware of her damaged reputation. Within the family, Christina was known to be something of a problem. Her own mother had declared her a rag-mannered hoyden since birth.
Why would Louisa want the trouble of bringing out such a girl?
But whatever secret fears Christina had harbored about her reception were momentarily laid to rest by Louisa's warm welcome.
"I shall give you five minutes to examine your room, and then you must come see Robert Edward."
"See the baby?"
"Yes, of course. You will love him. He is so droll."
Christina laughed. "Louisa, you must be the only mother in London to say such a thing about her infant. Would you not rather relate to me the horrors of your lying-in?"
"Pooh!" Louisa said, dismissing these with a toss of her carrot-topped head. "I can assure you they are easily forgotten. I quite ignored them myself as soon as I saw my darling."
Bustled up to her room, Christina could only marvel again at this strange creature her brother had wed. Who would ever have expected somber Robert to have so much sense? Twelve years younger than he, Christina had only sketchy memories of her serious elder brother. Seeing him with Louisa the first time had been a startling experience. The air between them had seemed to vibrate with a curious kind of energy. It had been something she could not fathom, but had vaguely envied.
After a quick freshening up, she joined Louisa in the nursery. With conspiratorial smiles, both ladies tip-toed over to the cradle. Robert Edward was fast asleep. Their presence must have disturbed his little lordship, for he yawned and stretched with his tiny eyes still closed, poking out his swaddled bottom until his back arched at an impossibly concave angle.
Christina gave a low, watery laugh and promptly fell in love.
"I'm so happy you invited me to be his godmother," she whispered, as she and Louisa retreated from the room.
"I knew you would love him. You are just like Ned."
"Yes. The Earl of Windermere." Louisa closed the door to the nursery and led the way back downstairs. "He is to be godfather."
"Godfather?Ned?" A vivid memory flooded Christina's brain?a head of windswept hair, as thick and black as pitch; merry eyes with a teasing gleam; two strong arms; and a comforting lap.
She waited until her sister-in-law and she were safely ensconced in Louisa's withdrawing room with the doors firmly closed, before saying, "The rake? I thought he and Robert had parted company many years ago. It is certain in any case that I've heard of Lord Windermere's tainted reputation, even so far away as Bath. He doesn't seem to be the sort of man Robert would have for a friend."
"Ned has his moments," Louisa admitted, "but he has been so good to Robert and me. And he adores the baby."
His handsome face flashed in Christina's mind again. "He always did like children," she said.
Louisa paused in her stitching. "I didn't know you two had ever met."
Christina grinned. "You could scarcely call it a meeting. I doubt if he remembers me at all. I was five and he was seventeen. He came down with Robert on the long vacation, but had the good sense never to come to Broughton Abbey again. Of course, I doubt my mother would have allowed Robert to invite him again."
"Oh, dear." Louisa seemed strangely discomposed. "What did he do?"
"I've never been entirely sure." Christina frowned, searching her memory for clues. "Something to do with the upstairs chambermaid, as I recall. It wouldn't have taken much to turn our mother against him. She's referred to him ever since as 'that horrid Windermere boy.'"
"Yes, I believe that is precisely how she referred to him in her last letter. I'm afraid I was so unwise as to advise her that we had chosen him for a godparent, but she did ask. Still, I shall refrain from asking Robert about the incident, and I would advise you not to either. Their friendship always has a rather ... precarious feel.
"But what about you?" Louisa seemed curious. "You were very young when he came. Why do you remember him?"
A smile pulled at the corners of Christina's mouth. "I remember him as the only one of Robert's friends who ever made me sick."
"Not sick!" Louisa looked stunned. And strangely disappointed.
"Not in the way you think," Christina said, laughing. "I meant quite literally sick. I was playing out in the park with my nurse, when Robert and he passed by on their way to hunt. When Ned saw me, he ran over and grasped me by the wrists. He started to spin me about in a circle faster and faster. I was rather frightened at first, and then delighted by the ride."
She made a disparaging face. "I suppose I must have giggled too much, for as soon as he stopped I began to feel ill. I'm afraid I lost my breakfast all over his boots."
Louisa covered her mouth with one hand. "Oh, dear. He must have been quite put off. But what did the boys do? Were they horridly callous?"
"Not at all. Ned was very contrite. He held me on his lap until my spasms passed. As I recall, Robert stood around and looked helpless."
As soon as she'd felt better, her brother had consigned her to Nurse's care, but not before Ned had kissed her on the cheek and said he was sorry. He had given her a hug and dusted off her dress before she was led away.
Nurse had scolded, of course.
Christina emerged from her memory to find Louisa gazing at her speculatively. "Perhaps that was the incident that angered your mother."
"Oh, no. We made a pact of secrecy before Nurse carried me off. I never told on him, and I'm certain that Robert never did. Nurse would not have wished to either, or she would have been blamed for letting me play with the boys."
"I hope you haven't nourished a disgust for Ned all these years," Louisa said on a questioning note.
"Of course not." Christina chuckled. "I should think he would be the one to have a disgust of me." If he did not, he would be one of the rare ones. She had managed to offend most people with her antics. Gazing at her sister-in-law now, Christina wondered how long it would be before she managed to offend Louisa's sense of propriety, as well.
"I don't think Ned recalls the incident."
Christina knew a moment of disappointment. "No, of course he would not. Why should he remember a little girl he met just once?"
Louisa sighed. "Yes, men are so insensitive. They never cherish romantic moments."
"Romantic? Louisa, you cannot be serious."
Even Louisa laughed. "Well, perhaps not. Perhaps you and Ned were never meant to be a couple. I can see that now."
"A couple?" Christina felt a curious fluttering in her stomach. "What on earth are you saying?"
"Oh, I must not mention it," Louisa said, rising from her couch. "Just a silly notion of mine. But dear Robert is entirely opposed."
"Opposed to what?"
Louisa's smile faded. She breathed a heavy sigh. "You will think me quite silly, considering what you have just related, but knowing you both, I had thought ... I had just briefly hoped that you and Ned might make a match."
"How absurd." Christina felt the feebleness of her smile.
"Isn't it? At least ... it is, I suppose?"
"Of course it is. Why should you hope for such a thing?"
Her eyes cast down, Louisa fingered the skirt of her dress. "It's Ned. I know he's lonely. He may seem like a rogue, and I do not doubt he gets up to the worst possible mischief, but I do think he would make a wonderful husband for some fortunate girl. And you seem so alike in the way you both took to the baby. And of course, it would be lovely to have him in the family ... ."
Louisa was rambling, and Christina knew she should stop her, but an image of Ned's handsome face had come again into her mind. She had never forgotten that face: his big, dark, laughing eyes with their hint of secret delights. They had swum before her vision many times, almost as if he were twirling her still.
She gave her head a mental shake and said, "You are being fanciful."
"Yes, and so Ned told me."
"Ned told you ... ." Christina felt color rushing to her cheeks. "You never had this conversation with Ned!"
"Well, not this precise one, I don't believe."
Christina burst into a laugh. "Louisa, you are outrageous. The poor man. You will be quite fortunate if he even shows up at the Abbey tomorrow. I expect he will avoid me like the plague."
"It is just as well." Louisa shook her head despairingly. "As I told you, Robert would not hear of it at all. In fact, he would much prefer that Ned not meet you. He does not trust him."
"Indeed." Christina could feel her hackles rising. How dare Robert concern himself with whom she should meet!
She was no longer a schoolroom miss. She had been restrained long enough?at her school, sometimes forcibly when her rebellious nature had led her to commit unpardonable acts. Coming to London was supposed to mean freedom, and, she had hoped, a blessed end to her unrelenting restlessness. She'd be confounded if she would allow Robert to dictate her taste in men!
But she had learned one thing, at least, at that dismal seminary. She gave Louisa her most earnest look and said, "I would never want to do anything to disappoint you or Robert."
To her astonishment, the smile Louisa gave her was full of a cryptic satisfaction.
"That's quite all right," Louisa said. "I am certain you will not disappoint me."