A Knight Before Christmas
Penelope Carrington must remarry before Christmas or lose the ability to dower her younger sisters and pay off her father’s debts. She’s turned to Sir Leviticus Sparrow, her late husband’s friend and former solicitor, to aid her in her search for a husband, so to speak…
Sir Leviticus Sparrow’s mind operated at a rate inverse to the speed of his words or his actions. Pen had taken a year to understand this about him. Levi was brilliant, but his brilliance was no more evident on the surface than the teeming life in the sea was apparent from sunlight sparkling on placid waves.
Sixtus had called his man of business Sir Leviathan, saying his solicitor liked to dwell in the depths and had long tentacles of influence. The analogy hadn’t seemed to fit the big, quiet, dark-haired man who’d shown up at Carrington Close once a month with voluminous files and little conversation.
Then Sixtus had fallen ill, and the visits had become more frequent.
“Is there any way to modify the terms of the will?” Penelope asked.
A slight pause—Levi Sparrow was a great one for pausing—and then, “No, my dear, not unless you find a crooked judge or effect a change of law. You have until the twenty-eighth of December to marry, or you will lose all but the jointure and life estate specified in the will. May I ask what has precipitated this change of position?”
So polite, while Penelope wanted to smash her tea cup against the hearthstones. “Must I tell you?”
His glance shifted to the desk, where he doubtless had more interesting business to transact than Penelope’s marital campaign. The elegant manner in which he crossed his legs at the knee suggested he was irritated.
Well, so was she.
“You are under no obligation to tell me anything, madam, though if you are in trouble, if you have gambling debts, or if your grief has led you to intimate indiscretions which some fool thinks to turn to his financial advantage—”
“Indiscretions? You think I’ve been out merry-widowing, with Sixtus not yet gone a year? Dancing on his grave? You too, Levi?”
Levi Sparrow was not precisely her friend, but he’d been Sixtus’s friend, also the solicitor entrusted with Sixtus’s most delicate transactions and negotiations. For Levi to suggest she’d taken lovers during the limited mourning Sixtus had prescribed hurt.
Hurt badly, and did not bode well for her plans.
“My dear lady, calm yourself. I lost my Ann eight years ago.” He took a bite of fruitcake, probably a strategic move to buy time to gather his thoughts. Levi gathered thoughts like old women knitted on familiar needles. Click, click, click, in rapid, sure succession, all of a piece.
“Eight years is a long time.”
He fell silent. Levi liked his silences, just as he took liberties with pauses, and yet, Pen had forgotten this about him: He was a widower. He’d known loss, and maybe that explained why months after the condolence calls had ceased and all but the most determined bachelors had stopped sniffing about her skirts, Levi still came to see her.
He’d advised her against donating all of Sixtus’s clothes to the staff or the poor, suggesting she keep at least a good suit of clothes, a dressing gown, and the old fellow’s favorite riding boots.
She’d cried, clutching those boots. Cried for an old man who hadn’t been able to sit a horse in years.
An astonishing thought intruded on that dolorous memory.
“Levi, are you telling me you took lovers during your mourning?” The question exceeded the bounds of any inquiry she’d made of him in the five years of their acquaintance. “Don’t answer that. I’m left much to my own company, and sometimes I don’t know if I’ve said something aloud, or merely thought it. I’ve doubtless taken my first step down the slippery slope of eccentricity.”
Levi neither made light of her outburst nor ignored it. Instead, he picked up a piece of fruitcakes sporting a thick smear of butter and held it up to her mouth.
“You must eat. Cook takes her company baking seriously, and I offend her at my peril.”
Penelope took a bite, smooth, fresh butter blending with candied fruit and spices. Another extraordinary thought popped into her mind, though this one she kept penned up behind her lips: He was teasing her somehow, perhaps even—dare she hope?—flirting.