Welcome to my special sneak peek!
If you loved the orphaned Daisy Drake in How to Please a Pirate, you’ll be excited to learn that she’s all grown up and ready for her own romantic adventure in How to Vex a Viscount! It’s scheduled for release in September 2012, but you can enjoy the first 3 chapters here:
Item: One clay lamp after the fashion of an erect phallus —from the manifest of Roman oddities, found near London, England, 3 July, in the Year of Our Lord 1731
“Hmm! I wonder if that’s life-size,” Miss Daisy Drake murmured. She leaned down to inspect the ancient lamp on display in the corridor outside the Society of Antiquaries lecture hall. Talking to herself was a bad habit, she knew, but since none of her friends shared her interest in anti- quities, she often found herself without companions on this sort of outing.
“Of course, it would be on the most inaccessible shelf in the display case.” Solely to vex her, she suspected. Daisy scrunched down to get a better look at it.
The clay lamp was only about four inches long, but in other respects, so far as Daisy knew, was perfectly lifelike. The terra-cotta scrotum served admirably for an oil cruse, but even though she knew the ancients decorated their homes with such unseemly things, she still wondered about how the lamp worked. She opened her small valise and drew out paper, quill and ink pot in order to take a few notes. “Where does the flame come out?”
“Right where one would expect,” a masculine voice sounded near her.
Daisy’s spine snapped suddenly upright. The crown of her head clipped the man’s chin with a thwack and she bit her tongue.
“Jupiter!” One of her hands flew to her throbbing mouth, the other to the top of her head, where her cunning little hat was smashed beyond recognition. Her sheaf of papers fluttered to the polished oak floor like maple leaves. The small inkwell flew into the air and landed squarely on the white lawn of the man’s shirtfront.
“Oh, I’m so dreadfully sorry.” Daisy dabbed at the stain with her hankie and succeeded only in spreading it down his waistcoat. A black blob dribbled onto his fawn-colored breeches. She decided not to chase that stain with her hand- kerchief.
At least, thank heaven, plastering the man with ink covered her unmaidenly interest in that lewd little lamp. It was clearly a mistake to come to the museum today, but the topic under discussion at the Society of Antiquaries was the possible discovery of an ancient Roman treasure. The lure of an adventure drew her like a lemming to the sea.
“How clumsy of me!” She made the additional mistake of looking up at the man. Her mouth gaped like a cod’s.
Lucian, she almost said aloud. When she saw no trace of recognition in his dark eyes, she drew her lips closed by sheer strength of will.
He’d grown into himself since she’d seen him last. His fine, straight nose was no longer out of proportion to the rest of his face. As he rubbed his square jaw, Daisy saw that the little scar on his chin was still visible, a neat triangle of pale, smooth skin. She’d recognize that anywhere.
After all, she’d given it to him.
His dark hair was hidden beneath a dandy’s wig. Oh, she hoped to heaven he hadn’t taken to shaving his head, as some did. Daisy’s uncle Gabriel was a dogged opponent of the fashion. Said it was nothing but French foppery. Since Uncle Gabriel’s opinions were only slightly less authoritative than a papal bull, his aversion to wigs had rubbed off. Besides, hiding a head of hair like Lucian’s was a sacrilege. Or ought to be.
An ebony wisp escaped the wig near his left ear.
Good. Daisy breathed a sigh of relief. His dark mane was one of Lucian’s finest points, after all. Not that there weren’t plenty of others.
His lips twitched in a half smile.
“An interesting piece, isn’t it?” He was still the same old Lucian. Still direct, even at the expense of propriety. He wasn’t going to play the gentleman and pretend he hadn’t caught her ogling that Roman phallus.
“Indeed.” She met his gaze, determined to make him understand that her interest was purely intellectual. “Obviously a cultic object of some sort. It is certainly a curiosity.”
“It is gratifying to find a young lady who is . . . curious.”
Daisy lifted her chin in what she hoped was a confident manner. “Of course I’m curious. Such an item makes one wonder what the people who used it were like.”
“I suspect the ancients were more like us than we want to admit. People have been born into this world with the same wants and needs since Eden. Though I’ll grant you our taste in home decoration has changed,” he said with a laugh.
“Actually, I read a treatise only last week on the new fashion of tassels. The writer felt they were merely phallic symbols in subtle form.”
“Hmph. I shall never look at a tassel the same way again.”
His eyes narrowed in speculation. Daisy hoped he might show some sign of remembering her, but it had been more than a decade since they’d met. She’d been a flat-chested ten-year-old, and he’d been a haughty woman hater of twelve. With soulful eyes and a blinding smile.
Now he turned that charming smile on her without a hint of recognition in his intense gaze. “You must possess an unusual library.”
The library Daisy frequented most often belonged to Isabella Haversham, her great-aunt. Isabella had once been a famous courtesan. But even now that she was a married lady—the wife of an earl, no less—she still entertained philosophers and artists and “freethinkers” with regularity. Lady Wexford might be painted with scandal’s brush, but an evening in her company was far more diverting than squirming through the tortured clavichord recitals that took place in other parlors around the city.
Daisy wangled an invitation to Isabella’s soirees as often as she could. For that reason, as well as her great-aunt’s library, Daisy suspected her education was considerably broader than that of most young women her age.
“Innocence and ignorance need not forever clasp hands,” Isabella was fond of saying.
Daisy looked pointedly back at the lamp. There was no denying she’d been studying it before. She might as well put a bold face on it.
“I was wondering if there is any kind of mark on that lamp,” Daisy said. “One that might indicate who the maker was.”
“He left no mark,” Lucian said.
“He? So you believe a man fashioned it?”
“Men were the artisans in antiquity,” he said with confidence.
“Hmm. That surprises me,” she said with wide eyes. “I can’t imagine a man wanting to set one of those alight.”
Lucian coughed out a laugh. “But you can see where a woman might have reason.”
“Certainly. Male domination of nearly every field of endeavor springs to mind.” As well as possession of the memory of a gnat, she added silently. “But the lamp poses a host of questions.”
“Ah, yes, and you raised an intriguing one.” One of his dark brows arched, a reminder that he’d overheard her. “I’d be happy to help you discover the answer.”
Was he suggesting something improper? If he was, it would serve him right if she gave him another scar.
“You owe me no further assistance. Not after I ruined your shirt. And your waistcoat. And your . . .” She shouldn’t have allowed her gaze to travel the ink’s path down the front of his breeches. For a moment, she imagined an appendage shaped like the lamp affixed to his groin, and felt her cheeks heat. To cover her embarrassment, she sank to the floor to retrieve her scattered notes.
“Think nothing of it.” His voice was no longer the adolescent squeak she remembered. “I should be more careful where I put my jaw. I do hope you have not suffered an injury to your head.”
The way his deep baritone rumbled through her, the fact that she even had a head temporarily escaped her notice.
“Please allow me.” Lucian set down the valise he’d been carrying and knelt beside her. He helped her reassemble her pages. Then he offered his hand to help her up, and she took it.
Had someone loosed a jar of June bugs in her belly? “Thank you, my lord,” she murmured, for lord he was. Lucian Ignacio de Castenello Beaumont. Son and heir of
Ellery Beaumont, Earl of Montford. Daisy assumed Lucian was now styling himself Viscount Rutland, one of his father’s lesser titles, since the earl was still very much alive.
But Daisy remembered Lucian as Iggy.
His ears had turned an alarming shade of red when she called him that. “Iggy” was not dignified, he’d complained. As if a skinny, dirty-kneed twelve-year-old were capable of anything remotely like dignity.
But Lucian was no longer twelve. He was a man. And the last time Daisy heard his name bandied about in polite society, the sober matron doing the talking lowered her voice, but the words reclusive rake and wastrel were unmistakably used.
Neither of which did anything to slow her racing heart, Daisy admitted with a sigh. She accepted the stack of papers from him. “There’s no salvaging your ensemble, I fear. Please permit me to have a new suit of clothing made for you.”
She could afford to be generous. After all, her uncle had rediscovered the family fortune beneath the stones of Dragon Caern Castle just when other members of the nobility were losing theirs in the South Sea stock swindle.
“I wouldn’t hear of it,” he assured her smoothly, though she knew Lucian’s father had invested heavily in the failed company. Perhaps his mother’s family was still solvent. She’d been a noblewoman in her homeland. Nearly all the vestiges of Lucian’s Italian accent were now gone. Daisy thought that a terrible shame.
“I’ve been meaning to retire this suit in any case,” he informed her. “The style is tres passé, n’est-ce pas?”
That would be a pity, since the cut of that green frock coat does wonderful things for his shoulders, and as for those bree—Daisy caught herself before her thoughts completely ran away with her, but lost her fight with the urge to flick her gaze to where his breeches molded to his thighs.
He caught the direction of her gaze and an amused grin tilted his lips. “My! You are a keen observer, aren’t you?”
“Forgive me. Ruining your suit has upset me,” she said, her cheeks flaming. “I’m acting like some pudding-headed debutante.” Instead she was firmly on-the-shelf spinster of one and twenty.
“If you were a debutante, I’d have remembered you,” he said.
Daisy doubted it. Especially since he showed no signs of recognizing her yet. Surely she bore some resemblance to the young girl who’d followed him about like a puppy so many years ago. His family had spent only a week in residence at Dragon Caern, but it had been the most frustrating, most splendid, most memorable week of her young life.
“However, if you want my advice,” he continued, “your chances of remaining unmarried will decrease if you try not to douse every man you meet with ink.”
“Perhaps remaining unmarried is my choice.” She frowned until she noticed the way he flashed his teeth at her, clearly teasing. Lucian was the sort of man a woman might forgive anything so long as he smiled at her.
Daisy bit her lip to keep from babbling further. She sidled away from the case where the phallic lamp was on display.
Lucian looked around the nearly deserted exhibit hall. “It seems there is no way for us to be properly introduced, but perhaps you will allow me the honor of giving you my name.”
Final proof that he truly didn’t recognize her. Her belly spiraled downward in disappointment.
How was it possible that she could carry his image in her head for all these years while he completely forgot that Daisy Elizabeth Drake even existed? Bristling with indignation, she took another step backward to put more distance between them.
Before she could remind him that he should already know her name (and quite well, thank you very much!), the door behind her swung open and whacked her soundly on the bottom. Then the door slammed shut as whoever opened it realized he’d hit something. Daisy stumbled forward and Lucian caught her in his arms.
She was pressed tight against him, suddenly engulfed in his masculine scent, a clean whiff of sandalwood and soap. Beneath her splayed fingers, the musculature in his chest was rock hard. Her breath caught in her throat.
“Are you injured, miss?” Lucian asked.
“Only my pride.” Daisy pushed against him as a signal he should release her. She wasn’t about to admit that her derriere throbbed.
“No, I fear we have another casualty,” he said, not loosening his hold on her a bit. Daisy followed his gaze to her décolletage, where some of the ink from his shirt and waistcoat had been transferred. Part of the stain marred her pale blue stomacher and part darkened the mound of her breast that rose above it.
“Pity. Such an alabaster bosom should never wear black.” He drew a fingertip along the froth of lace at the neckline she’d always thought of as modest, but never would again. “Alas, I forgot my handkerchief this morning or I should return the favor and try to wipe it off.”
The thought of his hand on her skin with only a thin layer of cloth between them made her belly quiver.
The door creaked behind her and eased open a tentative few inches. A monocled gentleman peeked out and waved Lucian over with urgency.
“There you are, Rutland. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Daisy started and jumped away from Lucian. She recognized the gentleman as Sir Alistair Fitzhugh, head of the Society of Antiquaries. She’d petitioned for admission several times, only to have Sir Alistair blackball her membership on account of her gender. The man cast a quick dismissive gaze over her and turned back to Lord Rutland.
A baron’s niece counted for very little when measured against a viscount, she supposed.
Fitzhugh’s monocle popped out and dangled from its silver chain as he eyed the large, oddly shaped ink stain on Lucian’s clothing. “Good God, man, what’s happened to you?”
“It was—” Daisy began.
“My fault entirely,” Lucian finished for her. “I will be in directly, Fitzhugh.”
Lucian turned back to Daisy. “Perhaps once I’ve delivered my presentation—”
“Hold a moment,” she interrupted, stunned. She’d expected an Oxford-don type would lead the discussion. “You’re the speaker?”
He nodded with a wry grin. “When I’m allowed to be.”
She covered her mouth with her fingertips. When had Lucian become an expert in Roman antiquities? Or, more specifically, lost Roman treasure.
“As I was saying, I hope we may continue our discussion at a later time. I’d enjoy learning what else such a charming young lady finds . . . curious in these dry halls.” He retrieved his valise, made an elegant leg and shot her a wicked grin. “And for your information, the answer is no.”
“No?” Her brows nearly met in a puzzled frown.
“It’s not life-size.”
Miss Drake, it is my sincere hope this will be the final time I am called upon to send you notification of rejection for membership.
Sir Alistair Fitzhugh, Esq.
“What colossal cheek!” Daisy gaped at Lucian’s retreating back. The man had the gall to turn her quest for knowledge into something decidedly bawdy. Of course, he might argue that she started it when she asked if the blasted lamp was life-size. But in her defense, she’d been under the assumption that she was talking merely to herself.
Why, Lucian was a veritable eavesdropper.
And insufferably smug.
To top it off, the dark-eyed devil hadn’t even invited her in to hear his blasted lecture! He was no better than the rest of the gentlemen in the Society.
And he’d committed the further unpardonable sin of not remembering her.
Sir Alistair had refused to admit Daisy to the lecture hall earlier. The study of antiquities was far too “earthy” a subject for a young lady, he’d said, looking down his long Scottish nose at her. Now that Daisy knew the speaker was only Lucian Beaumont, she was of half a mind to return to her great-aunt’s town house.
But the door to the lecture hall hadn’t latched behind Lucian when he took his leave, and Daisy wasn’t the sort to let an opportunity slide by. With a quick glance up and down
the corridor to make sure she wasn’t seen, she pulled the door open and sidled through as small a crack as possible.
The entire back row of chairs was empty, so she slipped into a seat and hoped no one would notice. Once she got a look at the mosaic propped up on the dais, she was sure no one would spare her a second glance.
The myriad of tiny colored tiles were almost completely intact. Even from her distant vantage point, she could tell that the artwork was splendid. But Daisy could see why this mosaic wasn’t on display to the general public. The subject matter would shock a sailor, and since she’d been raised by a prodigal pirate, that was saying something.
The work was nearly the size of a hogshead of beer in a public house. All around the outside of the circular mosaic, there were scantily clad figures depicted in odd poses, some bent over, some with limbs entwined in uncomfortable-looking positions. A few were joined in groups of three instead of two.
Daisy squinted, wishing she’d thought to borrow Great Aunt Isabella’s lorgnette. She turned her attention to the much larger representation in the center of the circular design.
The figure was a man, his calm Roman eyes looking out on the world with amused interest, the slightest upturn to his mouth. He stood proudly, his short tunic displaying muscular legs.
And protruding from beneath his tunic was an organ that would put Uncle Gabriel’s stallion to shame. It was as long as the man’s forearm and nearly as thick.
Hmph! Bet that’s not life-size either, Daisy thought, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. It looks more likely to impale than pleasure.
Daisy often sneaked into Isabella’s library to read her collection of love poetry. Most recently, Daisy had discovered the unpublished memoirs of Mademoiselle Blanche La Tour, a French courtesan, who led an extremely adventurous life in and out of the boudoir. Mlle La Tour was not reticent in her description of either type of exploit, so Daisy’s knowledge of intimate behavior far outstripped her personal experience.
She was reading through the journal slowly, asking Nanette, her great aunt’s French maid, for help when her own grasp of the language proved too school-girlish for the subject matter. Nanette proved a font of information, as well. Daisy never imagined so much could be accomplished with something as small and seemingly insignificant as a tongue.
She jerked herself back from her naughty musings. Lucian was speaking.
“This mosaic was unearthed on my father’s estate in the ruins of what I confidently believe was once a Roman proconsul’s residence,” he said. “Only a regional governor would have commissioned such a work.”
“Why do you say that?” one man spoke up. “It appears to me that any man with means would choose to have himself depicted as Priapus. I’d fancy something on that order on the boudoir walls myself.”
Several gentlemen laughed with him.
“Phallic cult art has always been popular, Lord Brumley, but only a politically well-connected gentleman would project his power in such a display in the foyer of his home. He must have been a proconsul, a man accustomed to obedience from those around him,” Lucian said. “And one who had no fear of his own wife.”
Daisy covered her mouth with her gloved hand to stifle a giggle.
Lucian certainly knows how to silence a detractor.
Lady Brumley’s public set-downs of Lord Brumley were legendary, as was her family’s close connection to the Crown. Her less well-placed husband quaked behind her,
walking a narrow line indeed. Lord Brumley made up for this humiliation by blustering loudly and bullying others whenever Lady Brumley was absent.
“As you can see from the artist’s rendition,” Lucian was saying, “the Romans led a varied and experimental life of the flesh. However, as fascinating as this mosaic is, the find I’m about to unveil is even more beguiling.”
To a man, his audience leaned forward in their seats.
Lucian reached down into his small valise and pulled out an object no larger than Mlle La Tour’s journal. “A wax tablet and stylus.”
The assembly loosed a collective sigh of disappointment.
“Well, it seems in remarkable condition,” Sir Alistair said. “But I fail to see how a tally of grain shipments or slave purchases—”
“I know that’s usually what one finds on these things, but not so in this case.” Lucian cradled the tablet as if it were his firstborn. He reached a finger to trace the delicate writing, then pulled back as if he’d thought better of it. “No, gentlemen, this is the treasure I promised to share with you in this lecture. Or rather, the way to find the treasure.”
“Well, don’t riddle us, Rutland,” Lord Brumley grumbled. “We have neither the time nor the patience.”
Nor the intellect, Daisy added silently.
“What is it then? Out with it,” Brumley said.
Lucian held the tablet over his head like Moses descending from Mount Sinai. “This is the record of a Roman treasure that went astray and was never recovered—a year’s pay for the entire Roman Legion on the British isle.”
Daisy could almost hear the men calculating the sum in ancient coin as they settled back into their seats.
This time, Daisy leaned forward. The lure of a treasure tempted her as though she possessed a dragon’s attraction to shiny hoards. When she was a little girl, her uncle had discovered a pirate’s cache of Spanish gold beneath the stones of her home, Dragon Caern Castle in Cornwall. The sudden wealth changed her family’s life forever. Her uncle might be a mere baron and a former pirate, but the Spanish gold meant even dukes now sought him out for friendship and counsel.
Though Daisy and her sisters couldn’t claim a title in their own right, a generous dowry had landed a match with a marquess for her older sister, Hyacinth. The twins, Posey and Poppy, were engaged to an earl apiece. Only Lily was still in the schoolroom.
Daisy could have married thrice over, but she had little use for dandies. The men who danced attendance on her with visions of Spanish doubloons sparkling in their eyes were irritating in the extreme.
And more than a little dull.
Besides, none of them ever made her heart race like a certain dark-haired boy with an Italian accent had.
Drat the man! How could he not even remember her?
“What I offer you today,” the dratted man in question was saying, “is a chance to partner with me to find this Roman payroll.”
The thrill of finding Dragon Caern’s treasure had never paled in Daisy’s mind. It was the finest adventure her family had ever had.
She longed to do it herself this time.
“After all this time, it’s not probable the treasure is still intact,” Lord Brumley said with a sniff. “Does the tablet give the location?”
Lucian flashed a quick grin. “If it did, I’d not be likely to divulge it, would I? However, it’s not quite that simple. This tablet, though convincing, doesn’t contain the whole story. The narrative is unfinished, but it contains a sworn statement that the entire payload had been cached in one location. So I have to conclude that another as yet undiscovered tablet contains the rest of the information. Now we—”
“I understand you can’t give specifics, but what, in general, does the tablet say?” Sir Alistair asked. As head of the Society of Antiquaries, he was a bona fide scholar. Of all the men in the room, Daisy judged him most likely to be able to read an ancient Latin text. Daisy had a passing acquaintance with many of the others in attendance—Lord Lindley, Lord Halifax, Sir Benton Wembley, to name a few—and she’d never have guessed at their interest in antiquities.
Perhaps it was the risqué nature of the ancient art that commanded their attention.
“The tablet details a crime, a theft committed by the proconsul’s steward,” Lucian explained. “The named felon was one Caius Meritus, a freedman in the governor’s service. It seems he absconded with the pay wagon—”
A hiss of whispers circled the room. A wagonload of Roman coin, then. The mental calculations resumed.
“He hid the money and tried to flee the island, no doubt planning to return later to retrieve the treasure when the furor died down. Caius Meritus was killed in his escape attempt, but he left clues behind as to the whereabouts of the hoard.”
“What clues?” Sir Alistair asked.
“That is information I reserve to be shared with my partners in this endeavor,” Lucian said.
Sir Alistair waved a dismissive hand. “What assurance do you have that the Romans didn’t find it themselves?”
“Their own testimony that they didn’t,” Lucian said. “Caius Meritus’s cryptic deathbed statement left them bewildered.”
“But you fancy yourself able to decipher it centuries later. This reeks of arrogance, young man!” Brumley said.
“I make no claims for my own abilities, but I daresay the scientific method and use of reason improve my chances significantly.” The slightest tightening of Lucian’s jaw was the only sign that Brumley’s needling bothered him.
“Where did you find this tablet?” Lord Brumley demanded.
“In the same general area of our excavation as this magnificent mosaic.” Lucian waved a hand toward the well-endowed proconsul. “There’s no question of its provenance. I’m convinced we’ll find enough clues at this site to lead us in the right direction.”
“What is it you require from your partners, Lord Rutland?” Sir Alistair asked.
“An excavation is an expensive undertaking. Already I’ve invested a considerable amount from my own resources.” Lucian named a sum that sent a ripple of murmurs around the room.
Lucian was either very confident or very desperate, Daisy decided.
“I would require a similar investment from my partner,” he said. “We will share credit equally when the discovery is made, and my partner will be entitled to half the value of the items uncovered.”
“In other words, you’re selling blue sky just like your father did,” Lord Brumley said with obvious disgust. “Luckily, I pulled out of the South Sea debacle in time to keep from sinking with Lord Montford, but plenty of other good men didn’t. I see you intend to follow in your father’s footsteps and lead others to ruin.”
Lord Brumley stood and turned to stalk out. Angry shouts and denunciations came from all corners of the room. Daisy rose and scurried toward the door before anyone could catch her trespassing on the Society’s meeting, but she tossed one last glance at Lucian before she made good her escape.
The look of cold fury on his face caused all the small hairs on her arms to stand at attention.
The South Sea Bubble. She’d been a child in the fall of 1720, but she remembered the financial scandal well. Probably because it was all tangled up with the visit of Lucian and his family to Dragon Caern. Lord Montford, Lucian’s father, had been trying to convince Uncle Gabriel to invest his newfound wealth in the South Sea Company. The Crown had given the investment group exclusive rights to trade with South American markets, and it was poised to make obscene profits.
Uncle Gabriel had argued that obscene was the right word for it. He hadn’t sailed the Spanish Main under a pirate’s flag for all those years for nothing. He knew the ships that plied those waters. And their cargoes.
The South Sea Company’s chief import to the New World was slaves from the African coast. Some of Gabriel Drake’s pirate crew had been runaway slaves. Daisy remembered her uncle Gabriel shouting that he’d be damned if he’d ever invest in a slaver. Not even so much as a halfpenny.
Lord Montford had stormed out of the keep in a huff, dragging his family with him. Daisy hadn’t even been able to properly say good-bye to the boy she’d bedeviled all week and become secretly enamored with.
In less than a fortnight, the stock price of the South Sea Company nosedived, taking the entire financial market with it in a crippling plunge. A good deal of speculative investing led to the crash. Many families of ancient wealth were reduced to poverty. Even Sir Isaac Newton reportedly lost over twenty thousand pounds.
Of the loss, Daisy read that the brilliant man had said only that he could not calculate “the madness of people.”
Lord Montford was ruined.
No wonder Lucian was furious when Lord Brumley compared his current scheme to his father’s greatest failure.
Daisy stood off to one side in the corridor, seemingly fascinated by the amphora collection behind the wavy glass of the display case, as more gentlemen filed out of the lecture hall. “Dreamer” and “ill-advised” were the kindest comments she overheard. “Charlatan” would rankle Lucian most.
Finally, Lucian emerged. When he saw her, he inclined his head toward her.
“I regret, miss, that I am unable to continue our pleasant conversation at this time.” His lips were pressed tight in suppressed irritation.
“Then let us conduct a business conversation instead, Lord Rutland,” Daisy said brusquely. “Your excavation intrigues me. I have the means you require. I should like to become your partner in the endeavor.”
Lucian bit back a weary smile. “Miss, you mistake me. I’m not the fraud the Society of Antiquaries would paint me. I’m in need of investors, admittedly, but I’m not yet so desperate that I will take money from a young lady to whom I’ve not even been properly introduced. Good day.”
He turned and began to stride away.
A frustrated puff of breath escaped her lips. The man had an ego as large as that of the well-endowed proconsul in the mosaic.
“Then perhaps you could prevail upon ‘Iggy’ to introduce us,” she called after him. “For he and I knew each other well.”
He halted in midstride and turned back to face her. “Daisy Drake.”
“Indeed, milord.” She bobbed a curtsy. “I’m gratified to learn that your memory is not as pocked with holes as I feared.”
He raised a brow. “You can hardly fault me for not immediately connecting a charming young woman with an irritating tomboy.”
Her chin lifted; she was both mollified by the compliment to her now and incensed by his characterization of her then. “And yet I knew you almost instantly. It’s good to see you looking fit after all these years.”
“After the way you tried to spit me with a pike at our last meeting, I find your interest in my health less than comforting.” He rubbed the little scar on his chin for emphasis. “Of course, this must have made it easier for you to recognize me.”
“That was an accident and you know it. If only you’d kept to the way we practiced the fight scene, I wouldn’t have nearly skewered you.”
Daisy and her sisters produced plays for their own amusement in the same way other families produced mediocre poetry. The theatrical merits of their dramas might have been questionable, but the Drake siblings always managed to have genuine fun.
And very infrequent bloodletting. Really, Lucian ought to have forgiven her by now.
“In fact,” Daisy continued, “one might argue that your injury was as much your fault as mine.”
“One might,” he agreed.
“Then you’ll accept my offer to become your partner?”
“With regret, no,” he said stiffly. “Given our history, you’ll understand my reluctance to form another alliance with the house of Drake. It was only the greatest good fortune that kept my head affixed to my shoulders last time. I’m not one to tempt fate.”
“The decision to become a courtesan is not to be made lightly. A woman must be willing to make her own choices. And pay for them.” —the journal of Blanche La Tour
“And then the insufferable prig walked away without so much as a backward glance.” Daisy accepted the eggshell-thin china teacup from her great-aunt Isabella’s be-ringed hand. “He obviously needs the money. Why would he not accept it from me?”
“Because it was from you.” Isabella Haversham, Lady Wexford, dropped a brown lump of sugar into her own cup and stirred gently. “It’s the way of the world, sweeting. Men are incapable of bending where their pride is concerned.”
“And they have the gall to claim women are vain,” Daisy fumed. “Just because I gave him a scar on his chin.”
“Oh, no, Daisy. I’m sure it’s not what you gave him. I suspect it’s more what your uncle wouldn’t give his father.” Isabella took a sip of the aromatic tea and then settled the cup back into its saucer with a barely audible clink. “Lord Montford made no secret of the fact that he felt the South Sea Company would have rallied if your uncle had invested heavily at that juncture.”
“That’s ridiculous. The enterprise was doomed.”
Isabella arranged her delicately boned hands on her lap. Faint blue veins laced her pale skin. She was still a striking woman, but time was chipping away at the former courtesan with a relentless vengeance. However, advancing age had made no dent whatsoever in Lady Wexford’s sharp mind.
“Of course, the South Sea Company was doomed, but if money or love is concerned, when is the human race not ridiculous?” Isabella said, with a shrug that seemed curiously French. “But however misguided, if Lucian is loyal to his father, you shouldn’t hold it against him. I suspect you’d do the same if you perceived a slight to your family.”
Daisy sighed. “I suppose you’re right. But I so had my heart set on an adventure and finding treasure would be a grand one. Each day is so like another, sometimes I think I’ll burst out of my own skin from sheer boredom.” Her lips curved in calculation. “You know, I just might be able to bear this disappointment if you’d let me come to your soiree this evening.”
Isabella fixed her bright-eyed gaze on Daisy, considering the matter. “I suspect Jacquelyn would have my head if I did.”
Jacquelyn was Isabella’s daughter. Even before Daisy’s parents died, Jacquelyn Wren had been the Drake sisters’ fiercely protective governess. Once Mistress Jack married Daisy’s uncle Gabriel, she was no less protective as their aunt. In truth, Daisy thought of Jacquelyn and Gabriel more as her parents than as her aunt and uncle. And even though no actual blood tie bound Daisy to Isabella, Lady Wexford had fallen into the role of doting great-aunt with relish.
“I’m no longer a child. What I do or don’t do is none of my aunt and uncle’s affair,” Daisy declared. “Besides, I’m of age. And a woman of independent means.”
“Only thanks to your extremely enlightened aunt and uncle,” Isabella reminded her gently. Even though the family fortune was considerable, her guardians were under no obligation to be so generous to her. The fact that they gave her control of her own funds was a measure of their love and trust.
“Please, Isabella,” Daisy wheedled, not sounding particularly of age or independent. “I’ve spent time in your salon before.”
“Ordinarily, I’d agree, but this is no pitched philosophy discussion or poetry reading. I’m giving a masquerade in honor of Geoffrey’s birthday.” Isabella rejected the notion that she should refer to her much younger husband as Wexford. Their marriage was unconventional by all standards. Her mode of addressing him might as well be, too. “When people don masks, they feel free to do things, outrageous things they’d only dream of without the cloak of anonymity. This evening is bound to become . . . complicated.”
“If by that you mean there will be lovemaking in every curtained alcove, you needn’t worry that you will shock me.” Daisy scented victory and tried to sound worldly enough to have earned it. Isabella’s masquerade would definitely be exciting, and at this point, Daisy longed so for an adventure, she wasn’t about to quibble over what form it took. “Thanks to Mlle La Tour, I know what happens between a man and a woman, probably even better than Hyacinth. And she’s already a mother.”
“What did you just say?” Isabella was rarely shocked by anything, but she sounded stunned now.
Daisy’s fingertips flew to her mouth. Reading the courtesan’s memoirs was a secret between her and Nanette. “All right, if you must know, I’ve been invading your library every day for a month. Haven’t you always said a woman shouldn’t be forced to remain in ignorance? Mlle La Tour’s journal has been . . . very educational.”
Isabella loosed a tinkling laugh. “It is that. Well, I see there’s no point in closing the stable door. It appears the filly has bolted.”
“Oh, no!” Daisy protested. “I haven’t acted upon any of my knowledge.”
“I’m gratified to hear it. Not because I think it wrong for a woman to take pleasure, Lord knows, but because I think it might be wrong for you now.” Isabella raised a questioning brow at her. “Your family still hopes you’ll wed. It is inconceivable for a young lady of your birth and generous portion not to be set upon by suitors. No beaux in the offing?”
“None I care to encourage.” Daisy leaned her cheek on her palm. Her outspokenness discouraged the more desirable gentlemen, while her fortune enticed the worst. “Gallants and dandies, the whole lot. When they look at me, all they see is the pile of doubloons Uncle Gabriel has settled on me. They never seem to see me.”
“And yet Lucian Beaumont refused your offer of funds,” Isabella mused into her teacup. “I’m beginning to think I should like this young man.”
“No, you shouldn’t,” Daisy said, wishing she didn’t. Lucian obviously wanted as little to do with her now as he had when he was twelve. “He’s stubborn as a—”
Daisy rolled her eyes. “Point taken. But you’ve changed the subject. Back to your masquerade. Please, Isabella. Haven’t you ever wanted something . . . anything exciting to happen to you so badly you didn’t care if it was right or wrong? And if something didn’t happen soon, you’d be forced to take drastic measures to affect an adventure, devil take the hinder-most?”
Isabella eyed her thoughtfully for a moment. “My dear, you sound quite desperate.”
Daisy hadn’t realized herself how very unsettled she felt until the words slipped from her mouth. Like a fledgling sensing the power of her untested wings, Daisy was dying to take flight.
“Desperate? Heavens, no.” She forced a laugh. “Just bored to tears. But if I were to attend your masked ball, it might take the edge from my tedium.”
“If—and mind you, I said if—I thought it advisable for you to come tonight, what sort of costume might you assemble on such short notice?”
Daisy cast about in her mind. “I once wore a small papier-mâché boat strapped to my hips and a hat like a sail on my head so I could be an English schooner fighting off the Spanish Armada.”
“If you want men to notice you, and not your fortune, appearing as a warship is not the best idea.” Isabella shook her head. “Besides its being totally impractical on the dance floor, we haven’t time for the papier-mâché to set.”
“Well, I once wore a suit of mail for another play, but it was deucedly heavy.”
“Again, the subtext of that costume is excessive defense,” Isabella said. “Perhaps, my dear, the reason men have not seen you is because you’re not ready for them to.”
Not ready? She was twenty-one, for pity’s sake. When would she be ready?
“No, I think you’d best not attend this fete.” Isabella shook her head. “This is not a childish play, Daisy. This is an adult masquerade. And the amusements will be correspondingly . . . adult.”
“I am an adult,” Daisy said flatly. “And it is time I was treated as one. Perhaps I could come disguised as a courtesan. Mlle La Tour herself.” Daisy was pleased by the hard blink of surprise Isabella cast her. “Nanette has shown me your old wardrobe from your days as ‘La Belle Wren,’ and the gowns are still stunning.”
“My, my, hasn’t Nanette been a busy little bee?”
“Don’t scold her. It’s my fault. She hasn’t done anything I haven’t asked.” Daisy’s heart raced a bit at the thought of appearing in public as a woman of pleasure. “You might have been a bit smaller than I, but surely there’s a gown in that collection I could squeeze into.”
“Being a courtesan is far more complicated than squeezing into a revealing gown.” Isabella drummed her fingertips on the arm of her chair.
“I know.” Daisy warmed to the idea with every breath. “I’d have to charm all the men in the room while making each one feel that he alone held my interest. I’d have to be gay and witty. Be available, yet unattainable.” She winked slyly. “I’d have to be you all over again, Isabella.”
Her great-aunt smirked, but Daisy could tell she was flattered by the reminder of her glory days.
“Please,” Daisy said.
Isabella raised her hands in mock surrender. “Very well. If we are going to do this thing, we’re going to do it right.” She tinkled the little bell on the serving tray, and Nanette appeared in the doorway. “Miss Daisy is attending the ball tonight, Nanette. She will wear the red tulle gown and my best wig.”
“She is coming as Mademoiselle Blanche La Tour, woman of pleasure, so give her the full regimen of toilette a courtesan must endure,” Isabella said.
Nanette’s eyes went round, but she merely bobbed her understanding in a shallow curtsy. “I shall prepare the bath tout de suite. This way, s’il vous plaît, mam’selle.”
Daisy stood to follow the lady’s maid out, but Isabella stopped her with a hand to her forearm.
“This may be just a game to you, Daisy, but it’s a dangerous one. You wanted men to see you. In this costume, I promise you, they shall,” Isabella warned. “You will feel very powerful tonight. When a woman knows men desire her and she has it within her to please or thwart them with a glance, it can be heady. But there is another power at work.”
Daisy raised a questioning brow.
“Desire can overtake a woman as easily as a man. A mask may hide a person’s identity for only a short time,” Isabella said. “In the morning, you’ll wash your face the same as always, and I would have you bright eyed before your looking glass. Therefore, I must have your solemn promise that whatever may happen this night, the dawn will find you in the same state of purity you now enjoy.”
“I am in perfect control of my own person,” Daisy said, tight-lipped.
“I’m delighted to hear it. Just make certain you control the men who will seek your attentions.”
“ ‘Do this. Don’t do this.’ ” She gently pulled away from Isabella. “Honestly, you sound like Aunt Jacquelyn.”
“Then my daughter is a wise woman,” Isabella said. “I’ll be the first to admit there are pleasures aplenty in a lover’s bed, but there are snares as well. I’d spare you, child. When you do finally go to a man’s bed, I want it to be with your heart’s and mind’s consent, as well as your body’s.”
Daisy leaned down and pressed a kiss to the older woman’s cheek. “It will be. Thank you, Great-auntie.”
“How many times have I told you to call me Isabella?” she said with feigned severity. “How shall I maintain the illusion of eternal youth if society is constantly reminded that I’m old enough to have a grown great-niece? Off you go, now.”
Isabella watched with fondness as her great-niece rounded the corner and disappeared after Nanette. Then she checked her mantel clock. Yes, if Isabella hurried, there was just enough time for her to issue one more invitation for tonight’s masquerade. Her footman would have to hand-deliver it.
There was always the possibility that the gentleman had a previous engagement, but Isabella would lose nothing in the attempt. Daisy wanted an adventure. This was the best way Isabella could make sure she had one.
Lady Wexford settled at her escritoire to compose a carefully worded request. Lord Wexford’s birthday masquerade would be lacking if not graced by the noble presence of Lucian Beaumont, Viscount Rutland.
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