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She looked at no one but the earl. She hesitated; her smile trembled. A moment later she rushed across the room to fling herself into his arms. “Geoff!” she cried, hugging him. “After all this time and all the miles, I’m back, here—in England!”

“So you are, so you are,” the earl repeated awkwardly, patting her on the back. He held himself stiffly, and looked over her head to see if anyone but her maid had come in as well.

“Oh,” she said, immediately stepping back. “How rude of me to be so forward, but I forgot myself at the sight of you again. You reminded me of the good times we had together. I didn’t have many, and I needed all I could get back then, and thank you for them.”

The earl glanced over at his guest. The viscount was watching him with a peculiar, thoughtful smile. “It’s not what you think,” he said, and turned his attention to his newest guest again. “But where’s Tanner?”

She lowered her eyes. “Dead, almost two years. Didn’t you know?”

“I hadn’t heard from him, but hadn’t expected to. We were not precisely friends.”

“I thought we were friends though!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, we were,” he said quickly. “But what happened to Tanner? He was in the pink of health when I left.”

“It was an accident…honest!” She laughed
ruefully. “Doesn’t everyone in Botany Bay say that when someone they know dies? Habit on their parts, I suppose. But it’s truth. He was drunk, he was wagering, he bet Morrissey—remember him? He bet he could take a really high jump. The horse did, but Tanner couldn’t stay on it.”

She raised a hand as though she was brushing away cobwebs from in front of her face. “No matter, it’s over, and long done. I waited to get back on my feet, to get my mind together. Then I decided to come home. Tanner left me rich! Fancy that! He took your advice and invested. You started him off when you were there, but then he scrimped and invested more and turned out to be a hand at it. Never fear that I’m here for a handout. The fact is, thanks to you, I’m rich, Geoff!”

He didn’t reply.

She stepped back, looking somehow smaller. “Oh,” she said in a stilted little voice, ducking her head. “I beg your pardon. I mean, Your Lordship. I forgot you were a nobleman now. Please forgive me.”

“No pardon necessary. But where are my manners? Allow me to introduce you to my dear friend, Leland Grant, Viscount Haye. Leland, this is Mrs. Daisy Tanner.”

“Enchanted,” Leland said, sweeping her a flourishing bow.

She glanced at the viscount, ducked a curtsy,
and her face went pink again. She looked back up at the earl. “It was bad of me to come without an invitation, but I couldn’t wait to see you. I now see that was very rude. I’ll return another time, if you wish.”

“I wish you to stay,” the earl said.

“Should I leave?” Leland asked. “I understand old friends wanting to catch up on old times. I’m the one who can see you some other time.”

“Nonsense,” the earl said. “Stay. We’ve no secrets, do we, Mrs. Tanner?”

“No, and it’s still just Daisy, please! ‘Mrs. Tanner’ feels so cold.”

“Daisy it is then,” the earl said. “And so Geoff it must remain, too, at least in private. Now, have you had luncheon, Daisy?”

“No,” she said.

“Then you will, here with us.” He looked over her head again. “There’s your maid. But where’s your companion?”

“I have none,” she said. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Another mistake! I’ve only been in town a few days and I thought—you and I—such old friends. But I see things are different here, aren’t they? I’ll leave instantly!”

“Nonsense. I think your maid will preserve your name for the space of a luncheon. But you must find a decent companion soon, because a young woman can’t stay on in London without one. Are you staying on, and where?”

“I’m at Grillions, which is a good hotel, I’m told.”

“It is.”

“I plan to rent a house in a good district too, because I certainly want to stay on. Where else should I go? I won’t go back to Elm Hill, where I lived with my father. What would I do there alone anyway? I never want to return to that place, too many bad memories, too many bad people, or at least ones that didn’t care.”

“Then I insist you join us for luncheon. We can try to sort things out for you. I know a realtor in London. We’ll try to find you a companion, too. Let’s set things in motion for you while we dine.”

He offered her his arm. She put her hand on it and looked up at him. “I also need to know where to order new gowns.”

“I don’t know a fig about fashion,” he told her. “But the viscount is an expert on it. He’s a tulip of the
ton.

“Too true,” Leland said sardonically, one hand on his chest. “I’m the very pinnacle of frivolous knowledge. All London knows it, and you, lovely lady, may of course rely on me.”

She looked up at the viscount and saw amusement in his knowing gaze. Amusement and something more, something she’d vowed to avoid. She quickly looked away. “Thank you,” she told the earl, ignoring his guest. “I knew all would be well once I got back to London—and you. That
is,” she corrected herself with a smile, “when I saw you.”

“I’m glad you remembered to come to me when you were in need,” he said, patting her hand.

“I could scarcely forget you!” she exclaimed, wide-eyed. “Whether or not I was in need.”

“What a delightful luncheon we shall have, my lord,” Leland said, as he watched his friend beam at the compliment. “Lobster and squab, and a touching reunion, too. I
am
in luck.”

The earl’s face became ruddy. “Daisy is an old friend,” he said.

“Yes,” Leland said with a smile. “What a lot of lovely old friends you seem to have. I can’t
wait
to hear how you met.”

S
he was too nervous to eat, but Daisy knew how to pretend she was enjoying her luncheon. Years of marriage to a man who wouldn’t put up with disobedience had taught her that much.

When her heart had slowed to a normal beat after her daring entrance, she sat in the earl’s dining parlor and tried to make polite conversation. They spoke about the earl’s three sons: Christian, son of his body, and the two adopted sons of his heart. They were all recently married, the earl reported, and doing wonderfully well.

“Marriage was like an epidemic around here last year,” the viscount commented with a theatrical shudder.

They laughed at the obvious distaste in the viscount’s expression. But Daisy was truly happy for all three young men. She’d liked each of them, and they each in turn had treated her with the same sympathy and courtesy their father did. Now she tried to listen to stories about Christian’s new house, his adopted brother Amyas’s penchant for Cornwall, and the miracle of Daffyd’s settling down at last. But she couldn’t stop sneaking glances around at the room she sat in.

She’d lived in a fine house when she’d been a child, but she’d never seen anything like the earl’s dining parlor. An elaborate Venetian cut-glass chandelier hung over the dining table, which was set with fresh flowers as well as food. The china plates the food was served on were almost transparent; the glasses looked as though they’d been spun from water; the cutlery was elaborately embossed and pure silver. The walls were covered with patterned stretched green silk; the sunlight that poured in through the long windows made them shimmer. The sideboards and chairs were antique, heavy with age and worth. The footmen were smiling but silent, the food served beautifully. Daisy was awed.

The gentlemen she dined with matched the splendor of the room. They were both well dressed, charming, and mannerly, more so than any men she’d seen in years.

This was her long-held dream, realized at last. Daisy was overwhelmed. She was also suddenly
so terrified, she couldn’t eat. She wondered if she hadn’t bitten off more than she could chew, though she could hardly take a bite of food.

Geoffrey Sauvage, now Earl of Egremont, wasn’t as she’d remembered him.

She’d remembered a genial, hardworking older man, usually weary, often sad. He’d dressed in the same rough clothing all the men she knew wore, but he’d worn his with a certain casual style. And, she remembered most clearly, he was always clean. He spoke well and softly, and was always kind to her. Most other men had treated her with wary respect because of Tanner and their fear of his anger if they didn’t, because to show no respect to his wife was to insult him. But she’d seen their eyes whenever they thought Tanner wasn’t watching. They’d looked her at with appreciation, greedy lust, and calculation. Geoff had never done that.

Nor did he look at her that way now. That wasn’t what made her uneasy. It was that he no longer looked sad, or weary, and most of all, now he didn’t look that old anymore. He was still dressed casually, but now in fashionable clothes. He looked prosperous, fit, robust, healthy. She wondered why he was still unmarried. She also wondered how many mistresses he had, and didn’t doubt he probably had at least one. Because now he looked like a man who would and could use a woman, and not just for show.

That wasn’t what she’d been expecting. That
wasn’t what she’d traveled halfway across the world to find; it was never what she wanted.

She didn’t want to be caught staring so she turned her attention to the earl’s guest, and found him watching her. She looked away again, quickly. The viscount was always watching her. But he didn’t eye her with any kind of lust; instead he seemed merely amused and curious. She wondered at his friendship with the earl; the two didn’t seem to have much in common.

He was years younger than the earl, and far more fashionable, even though his tall, thin frame must have made the perfect fit of his clothes difficult for his tailor to achieve. He had a long face, high cheekbones, and a long nose. Those watchful eyes were dark blue. His light brown hair was just overlong enough to make a fashion statement, and his curling smile was half mocking and half self-mockery. None of this, she thought with annoyance, should have been as attractive as it was.

He was dressed wonderfully well, from his tight blue jacket to his intricately tied neck cloth, to the sapphire pin he wore in it. He wore a quizzing glass, though he never used it to look at her. That, she thought rebelliously, would have been the outside of enough. But it would have given her a reason to dislike him, and she didn’t have one, which annoyed her, because he made her uncomfortable and she didn’t know exactly why.

She forced her gaze, if not her attention, back
to the luckless baked prawn sitting on her plate. There was only one thing for her to think about now. What about her plans? What was she going to do?

“Don’t you find the prawns to your taste?” the earl asked her.

“Oh, they are, but I had a late breakfast,” she said, telling partial truth. She smiled an apology. “And a big one. I haven’t learned to nibble in the mornings the way I hear London ladies do. I still wake up and tuck in, as though I had a day of work ahead of me.”

The earl laughed.

“What sort of work?” Leland asked. “Excuse me, of course it’s not my business,” he added when she didn’t answer right away. “Do forgive my insatiable curiosity.”

“No, that’s all right,” she said, her irritation with him giving her the courage to look him in the eye. Why not tell him? If she didn’t, Geoff would. And it would be fun to shock this lazy dilettante.

“My work?” she asked. “I woke at dawn, dressed, ate, and then fed the chickens, gathered the eggs, came back and cleaned the house. We had help, but I had to oversee everything and do much of it myself so it would meet my husband’s specifications. I helped wash the laundry, and there was a lot of it. My late husband used his sleeves the way the gentlemen here use napery or towels. He was also a horseman, or fancied himself
one, and there was always dust and dirt on his clothing.

“I also tended the garden in summer, knitted and sewed in the winter. I shopped and helped prepare our meals, and cooked them, too. We were well enough off and could have hired more help. God knows servants in the Antipodes were cheaper than dirt. Recently freed convicts are always eager to earn a stake so they can start over with their own houses or businesses, or else they need the money for fare for passage out of there. But my husband became a real skint. I told you that,” she said to the earl, with a smile.

If the viscount was shocked at her candor or her history, she didn’t catch it. When she looked back at him, he was smiling with appreciation.

“A mighty lot of work for such a delicate-looking lady,” he commented. “I commend you.”

It didn’t sound like that to her. It sounded sardonic. After all, why would such a peacock admire a woman who had worked like a peasant?

“So what are you going to do now?” the earl asked, his real concern clear to see by the furrows on his brow.

She had to make up her mind, and found she had. Things looked different, but nothing had really changed but her perceptions, and they could be wrong. And so she’d change nothing until she saw she had to. She gave Geoff her sweetest smile, and told him most of the truth, which was always best, her father had taught her, because
there was less danger of being caught in a lie when you had to lie.

“That’s just it,” she said. “I don’t know. My greatest plan was to get here. I can’t believe that I actually did that. Now? I suppose I want to find a place for myself.”

“Not a husband?” a cool, amused voice drawled. “That
is
what most single females I know are after.”

“But I’m not one of them, am I?” she replied as sweetly. “And you don’t know me.”

“Alas, my loss, which I feel more acutely each moment,” the viscount said, hand on his heart.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “How many ladies do you number among your acquaintance who were jailed and then sent to the Antipodes? Not a whole lot, I’d wager,” she said with a roguish wink at Geoff.

She looked at her inquisitor again. “I didn’t kill anyone, so you don’t have to pick up your knife in case you have to defend yourself, my lord. Actually, all I did was hold a brace of partridges my father brought home for me to cook. They were one brace too many, especially after the trout he’d taken the week before. Because they were poached from the woods of our neighbor, his dearest enemy, as our dinners often were. This time, the squire had my father followed. So we were caught with the goods and removed from the premises, as they put it. We were also speedily tried and convicted of a long string of similar offenses.”

She raised her chin, and spoke in her haughtiest accents. “You can do a great many things in this country, my lord, but God help you if you take a ha’penny from a gentleman’s purse, or money in the form of a rabbit or a trout from his property. My father, who had been wellborn, was unfortunately overly fond of spirits and not lucky at his favorite sport: gambling. He was also in the habit of lifting his dinners when the spirit moved him, and it frequently did. He also particularly loved to vex the squire.”

She gave a pretty shrug. “I suppose the squire had second thoughts at the last. My father
had
been a gentleman in the neighborhood before he drank and diced away his own house and lands, and gentlemen have a code of honor, I’m told. So the squire had our sentence commuted to transportation rather than hanging. And so there I was, and now here I am.
Not
in need of a husband at the moment, thank you very much,” she said with a sly smile, aping his exaggerated way of speaking. “Just happy to be home again at last, safe, and,” she added with a soft look to Geoff, “among friends.”

“You are that!” the earl declared. “Don’t mind Lee. He teases unmercifully but there’s no real harm in him.”

“Gad!” Leland murmured. “That sounds dreadful! Worse than if you thought I meant harm.”

“The thing is that you are here now, as you say, Daisy,” the earl went on. “I’d like to help you settle in, if you’ll let me.”

She felt the hard knot of tension ease in her chest. She gave him her best, most winning smile, and the whole truth. “Oh, Geoff,” she said on a sigh. “Of course. Thank you. That is exactly, precisely, absolutely what I wanted you to say.”

 

“A lovely creature,” Leland commented after Daisy had left them. “Clever, too.” He sat back and swirled the brandy in his glass, but kept watching his host, who stood by the fire staring into it, thinking, long after Daisy’s coach had gone. “Very clever, indeed.”

“She’s had to be. Poor child.”

Leland’s silence was his question.

“No harm in telling you the rest,” the earl said. “She told you how she got into her predicament, and if you’re going to help, you need to know more. You are going to help, aren’t you? You weren’t just being polite?”

“I’m
never
just polite. I meant it. I’ll send word to an employment agency; she’ll have eager would-be companions lining up at her hotel door tomorrow morning, early. And I’ll help to outfit her, too. That, at least, will be a pleasure. She really is a charming armful. Her body is exceptional. Slender, but firm and full…Oh, don’t scowl. I could go on, but I won’t. Still, she has spectacular good looks, you know.”

“I do.”


That
sounded very matrimonial,” Leland said with interest.

“What? Oh, ‘I do’? What? Me, and her? What are you thinking of? She’s younger than any of my boys. Far too young for me.”

“She’s also widowed, I remind you, and of age.”

“Yes, widowed, and good for her, poor child.”

Leland raised an eyebrow.

“Her husband, Tanner, was a brute,” the earl said sadly. “A good-natured brute when things were going his way. But a bully when they weren’t. He was a prison guard sent to the Antipodes with the convicts to watch over them in the new penal colony. He did it for the extra pay. He always loved money. Her father—now there was a cad—got her into prison. But he tried to do one good thing for her, at least. Or what he’d thought was good. He urged her to marry Tanner, as asked, so she could be protected from the other guards as well as prisoners on our ship.”

“I thought they kept the females separate,” Leland said with a frown. “That’s what the reformers are always demanding.”

“So they do. And so they have, here, or at least at most prisons in England. But once a ship is under way, it has its own law. No one can have a thousand eyes, and the few Bible thumpers who sailed with us were fooled a thousand ways. No question a little beauty like Daisy would have been ill used. So she did her father’s will and
chose to be ill used by one brute instead of many, and married Tanner.”

“A wise choice,” Leland said into his glass, though his lips were curled in distaste. “She didn’t do too badly, though, did she? She’s rich now, or so she says. And she doesn’t look the worse for wear.”

The earl gave him a strange look. “Lee, you’re a clever fellow for a fool.”

The viscount sat up, his manner no longer lazy. “I play a fool, my lord, that’s true,” he snapped. “Lamentable, but true. It is an affectation that amuses me. Are you telling me you now believe me?”

The earl waved a hand. “Relax, please. Forgive me. My experiences in prison are still a sensitive subject. But no man can understand unless he was there. Life’s different for a convict. Actually, he no longer has a life of his own, that’s the point. He has only his dreams. Someone else owns his body. Many don’t survive. Those who do bear scars, some visible, some not, however deep and potentially lethal they may be. Amyas still has nightmares. He’s happy now, but I think he will always have them. We all do, because we lived a nightmare.

“Still, if it’s possible, it’s harder for a woman than a man. Daisy was just turned sixteen when she had to marry Tanner. He was three-and-thirty. He was a robust young man, not unhandsome,
but she didn’t marry him for his looks. They were wed by a parson aboard ship on the way to the penal colony. Her father told her that if she married a guard, she’d be safer. And so it was. The authorities looked the other way and let her live with Tanner until her sentence was done.”

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