Well, perhaps there was one word left.
Clean-shaven, freshly bathed, and turned out in a black tailcoat that fit him snug as poured ink. And he must have done it all unaided, judging by the shocked expression Duncan wore as he rose to his feet. Poor fellow probably worried he'd been replaced in his duties.
But Izzy didn't believe that was the case, judging by the inadvisable color of the duke's waistcoat and the fresh, paper-thin scrape along his jaw.
It was silly, perhaps. But Izzy found that thin red line even more brave and endearing than the scar slashed across his brow.
"It's him," Abigail whispered across the table. "The duke."
"I know," Izzy murmured back.
"Why did he come down? Do you think he fancies you?"
Izzy pinched the bridge of her nose. Goodness. Why didn't this girl understand that Ransom could hear everything she said?
"He must fancy you," Abigail whispered on. "Wouldn't that be exciting? You could make him believe in romance and lo-"
The duke cleared his throat.
"Your Grace," Duncan said. "Forgive me. We weren't expecting-"
"Sit down." Ransom found the chair at the head of the table and drew it out. "I'm not here to make you work."
"Would you like some soup?" Abigail motioned to the serving maid, one of the newly hired servants.
"Just wine. I'm not here to eat, either."
Silence fell as they all pondered the question no one dared to ask aloud. If he wasn't here to eat or be served . . . why was he here at all?
"Give Miss Goodnight a rest about Morbidia." He took a seat. "Surely there's something else to talk about."
"It's all right," Izzy said, trying to contain the damage to the evening's pleasant atmosphere. "Really. I don't mind."
"I mind on your behalf."
Ah. So that's why he'd come to dinner. To stand up for her. To be her surly, ill-mannered champion. If it wouldn't have spoiled her lovely soup, Izzy could have burst into tears.
He tapped his fork against the plate. "I thought tonight's dinner was meant to be a holiday."
"It is a holiday, Your Grace," Abigail answered.
"Then I would like a holiday from fairy stories. Unless the knights and maidens tumble into bed and do carnal things to each other, I couldn't care less."
Abigail's cheeks turned a subtle shade of pink. "Your Grace. They do nothing of the sort."
"Then I'm not interested."
"There you have it, Miss Pelham," Izzy said. "The duke is not interested."
"That's because the duke doesn't know what he's missing. He needs to experience the stories themselves. We can read from them after dinner."
The serving maid removed the soup and placed a platter in front of the duke. She whisked away a silver dome to reveal a beautifully browned rack of lamb.
Ransom sipped his wine. "I hope you're not waiting for me to carve it."
Chastened, Duncan reached for the carving knife and began to saw the chops apart, offering a serving to each of the ladies before taking his own portion. Ransom refused to take any for himself.
Izzy couldn't help feeling awkward for him. So this was why he never joined them for meals. As the gentleman of rank at any given table, it was his task to carve the game and roasts-something that would be difficult for him to do well. Especially toward the end of the day, when she knew his vision waned dramatically.
She looked down at the lamb chops before her. Even a plate of food must feel like a test he was set up to fail. She briefly closed her eyes and tried to imagine going about cutting her meat into pieces without the benefit of sight. She might be able to manage it, with practice. But manage it with grace and ducal manners? That was less certain.
The passing and consuming of various dishes occupied them for some time. Ransom just kept drinking, which Izzy feared didn't bode well.
As the dessert course-a lovely fresh berry tart-was served, Abigail rose from the table and returned shortly, carrying her giant bound folio. Evidently she hadn't forgotten her promise to read.
"Here we are," she announced. "The Goodnight Tales. We'll start at the beginning tonight."
Ransom muttered a curse. "Is there no escaping this?"
"Please don't read them," Izzy said. "He needn't hear them at all. But if you do read, spare him the beginning, at least. My father was always embarrassed by those installments from the first few years. He didn't consider them his best work."
"But they're the beginning. One must begin at the beginning. Mark my words, Your Grace. Soon, you'll be swept up in the story of Cressida and Ulric."
As Miss Pelham opened the cover of the book, Izzy was struck by the powerful urge to sweep herself under the carpet. Perhaps live there for the next several years. She could reign in beneficence as the almost-pretty Queen of the Dust Mites.
" 'Part the first,' " Miss Pelham read aloud. " 'Night has fallen over England. In a small village in the countryside, there is a cottage. A cottage with a slate roof and a candle in every window. And in that cottage is a room. A room with silver moons and golden stars painted on the ceiling. And in that room is a bed. A bed with a quilted purple counterpane. And in that bed is a girl. A girl named Izzy Goodnight, who will not go to sleep.' "
Cringing, Izzy glanced toward Ransom at the head of the table. Perhaps it was for the best that he hadn't eaten anything. He looked as though he would be struggling to keep his meal down.
Miss Pelham read on, adding voices. " 'Papa, won't you tell me a story,' the little girl pleads. 'The hour is late, my Izzy,' I reply
. 'Please, Papa. The dark frightens me. But your tales give me such happy dreams.' "
Oh, God. Now he groaned. It was a faint groan, but a definite groan nonetheless. Izzy groaned, too.
And the whole mortifying experience was about to get worse. Much worse.
" 'Very well,' " Abigail continued. " 'Put out the light, my darling Izzy, and I will tell you such a tale. Once, in the time of brave knights and fair ladies, there lived an elegant and intrepid young lady by the name of Cressida. She had emerald green eyes and amber hair, sleek as silk.' "
Izzy braced herself. Here it came. Her three-word, lifelong curse. She mouthed the words as Miss Pelham read them aloud:
" 'Just like yours.' "
Miss Pelham looked up from the book and made eye contact with Izzy. "Isn't that curious? I must admit, I've wondered about it ever since we met. Didn't you wonder, too, Duncan?"
Duncan nodded. "If I'm honest, Miss Pelham, I did."
"Izzy, this is a question you can surely answer. Why did your father write you as having emerald eyes and sleek amber hair?"
"I . . ."
Oh, Lord. Izzy never knew how to explain this. Shouldn't the answer be obvious? The Izzy of the stories had to be different. Because no one wanted to read a story about a funny-looking girl with a mop of dark, tangled hair and pale blue eyes. Much less imagine themselves in her place. Because she, the real Izzy Goodnight, could only ever hope to be, at best, almost pretty.
Because she wasn't good enough.
"Because her father was a jackass," Ransom said. "Obviously."
Abigail and Duncan gasped in unison.
"No," Abigail said. "You're so very wrong, Your Grace. Sir Henry was . . . well, he was the most gentle, loving father a girl could hope to have. Wasn't he, Izzy?"
Once again, Ransom spared her the awkwardness of a reply. "Very well, I revise my statement. He was a shrewd jackass. Had everyone fooled. But if good Sir Henry was such an amiable fellow and doting father, why couldn't he be bothered to leave his daughter the security of an income and a comfortable home?"
"Your Grace, his death was so unexpected," Duncan said. "A tragedy."
"It was sudden," Izzy put in.
Abigail reached across the table to take Izzy's hand. "It must have been devastating. The whole country was in mourning with you."
Ransom shook his head. "That's no excuse. There are few true eventualities in life, but death is one of them." He waved for more wine. "If you ask me, this Sir Henry Goodnight was no better than a cut-rate gin peddler or opium trader. He hooked people on his soppy stories, then just kept shoveling them more, not caring how many people drowned their powers of reason in that treacly swamp."
Izzy thought that was going a bit too far.
"You don't have to admire my father's stories," she said. "But don't disparage the readers, or the notion of romance. Cressida and Ulric are just characters. Moranglia is entirely made up. But love does exist. It's all around us."
He put down his wineglass and turned his head, as if to survey the room. "Where?"
She didn't know how to answer. "Am I supposed to point it out like an architectural feature? There it is, framed and hanging on the wall?"
"You said love is all around us. Well, where is it? There are four of us at this table, all grown adults. Not one romance. Not one instance of love."
"But what? Everyone knows your situation, Miss Goodnight. Doomed to spinsterhood by your father's stories." He gestured at his valet. "Duncan here spent ten years pining for one of the London housemaids. Irish girl with bouncy curls and a bouncier bosom. She never took a second look at him."
Duncan made a halfhearted attempt at protest, but Ransom ignored it.
He turned to Abigail. "What about you, Miss Pelham? You seem lively, and by all accounts, pretty enough. Your father is a gentleman. Where are your suitors?"
Abigail stared at her half-eaten tart. "There was someone."
"Ah. And where's the someone now?"
"He left for the navy," she answered. "My dowry is slight, and he was a second son with no fortune of his own. Matters never progressed beyond friendship." She gave a little smile. "I suppose it wasn't meant to be."
Ransom propped his boot on the chair leg. "There. You see? Once again, cold reality trumps feeling." He waved from Izzy to Abigail to Duncan. "Overlooked, unwanted, rejected. Not a happy ending in the lot."
"That's not fair," Izzy protested. "Our own stories haven't ended. And even so, we are but four souls in a vast world. I receive letters from my father's readers every day. People from all walks of life who-"
"Who are desperate and deluded?"
"Who believe in love."
He leaned back in his chair, nonchalant. "Same thing."
"It isn't the same thing at all."
Izzy stared at him. She didn't know why arguing this point had become so important to her. If he wanted to live out the remainder of his life bitter and alone, she supposed he had that right. But his smugness made her so prickly all over. And he wasn't merely insulting love and romance. He was insulting her friends and acquaintances. Her own hard work.
The innermost yearnings of her heart.
This wasn't an academic argument. It was personal. If she didn't defend the idea of lasting happiness, how could she hold out any hope for her own?
She tried again. "Everyone . . . well, almost everyone . . . understands that my father's stories are merely stories. But love is not a delusion." To his disbelieving snort, she insisted, "It's not."
An idea came to her.