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She followed him to the door to the salon, Helena behind her. Daisy saw two men rise from their chairs as she entered the room. One was Viscount Haye, looking sardonic as usual, as he bowed to her. The other was a shorter man, dark and handsome, dressed like a top of the trees young gent about town. But she didn’t know any gentleman except for the earl and the viscount. Daisy frowned. This impudent fellow was laughing at her as she stood and stared at him, his slash of a smile white in his dark face.

“Don’t know me?” he asked. “There’s a blow to my vanity. Thought you’d remember me, Mrs. T.”

Her eyes widened. “Daffy!” she yelped, and raced up to him. She stopped short and looked up at him. “Of course I remember you. Always had a good word for me even on the hardest days, and weren’t there too many of those for both of us then? But I never saw you rigged out so fine. Lord, get a look at you!” she said, shaking her head. “A gent from your nose to your toes!”

“That I look, but that I’m not, I’d swear you know me better,” Daffyd said. “But you! You’re a lady, Daisy.”

she said, “I’m not. But I reckon you know that, too. Gawd, look at us, won’t you? A pair of rooks got up like swans.”

“A trio,” the earl said.

“No!” Daisy said, swinging around to look at him. “You’re a gentleman born, Geoff, and that you always were.”

“You, too,” he said soberly. “You were born a lady. Have you forgotten?”

She hesitated. “I’m trying to remember,” she told him sincerely.

His smile was so full of sympathy and understanding that for the first time since she’d left New South Wales, she felt she’d done the right thing to come here and find him so she could make a life with him.

Then she looked up to see the viscount’s face, and doubted herself again. The expression she’d glimpsed was gone in an instant. But Daisy always looked for insult and distrust and knew it when she saw it.

“Lord,” she exclaimed, “some kind of lady I am! Where are my manners! I’ve forgotten most, you know. But I’m trying. Here’s my companion, Mrs. Masters; she’s here to remind me of them. Helena, here is Daffyd, the earl’s ward, one of the nicest fellows ever to be sent to Botany Bay by mistake.”

Daffyd laughed as he sketched a bow. “That’s what every lag in the colony says, and in my case it was no mistake. But you don’t have to watch
your purse, Mrs. Masters. I gave up that life after I met the earl. So, Daisy, tell me about your trip and how things are back at Port Jackson.”

“My trip here was much better than the one out,” Daisy said with a wry smile, “as you may imagine. Still, I’ll be happy if I never set foot on a ship again! And I don’t think you really want to know how things are back there. Well, and if you do, all I can say is that we get more citizens by the day. You must be emptying all your jails here.” She frowned. “I don’t mean ‘we’ anymore, do I? You? We? Which do I mean? Lord, but it’s hard living between two worlds. Do you find that so?”

“Aye,” Daffyd said. “But it fades like a bad dream after a while.”

“In time, you forget,” the earl agreed in soft and thoughtful tones. “But never altogether, and that’s not altogether bad, you know. It’s good to recall bad times when you feel sorry for yourself for whatever reason. I promise it makes anything look better.”

The three smiled at one another.

The viscount watched them, and then looked at Helena Masters. They exchanged a knowing glance.

The earl saw it. “This will never do,” he said. “We’re excluding Leland, and…ah”—he searched for Daisy’s companion’s name—“Mrs. Masters. Come, dinner’s waiting. We can talk then, and share reminiscences, except, Daffyd,
please remember that I also have guests with tender sensibilities.”

“I live with a lady, remember? My wife’s got sensibilities, too. I won’t horrify Mrs. Masters,” Daffyd promised.

“Oh, but I’m not easily horrified, sir,” Helena protested.

“I meant the viscount Haye,” the earl said.

He won the others’ laughter, and a mocking bow from Leland.

Daisy sighed. Geoff’s surprise had been a good one. Still, she fervently hoped there’d be no others. Her course was set, and she wanted only smooth sailing from now on, all the way from here on up the aisle, where she’d join her new husband, Geoff, at last.

amn the wench for being so pretty, Leland thought sourly, and double damn her for being saucy, because pretty alone was never enough to snare a man like the earl. Leland picked up his wineglass again, all the while never losing sight of his host and his lovely guest.

Bright, vivacious, with a charming smile and an equally pretty wit, the woman was a dazzler. That red-gold hair was spectacular, and unlike many with similar hair, her face didn’t disappoint. She had a sprinkling of light freckles on her little nose; they might not be fashionable but they were certainly kissable. And her figure was fetching, to say the least. At least, it fetched his attention. She was not his sort of course…Leland paused. He
was always honest with himself. Of course she was his sort. She was any live male’s sort.

His eyes narrowed as she laughed at a joke the earl made. Hers was rich, full-throated laughter that made a man want to join in. That wasn’t the only thing he wanted to join in, he noted, watching how her laughter made the tops of her high, firm breasts jiggle. No sense saying she was wearing an indecent frock, either, he thought moodily. All women’s clothing was indecent these days: made of thin fabric, low at the neck, and styled with a high waist that accentuated the bosom. Hers didn’t need accentuating.

But in spite of the womanliness of her figure, she was slim and graceful; even her hands were slender. So was her neck. He noticed things like that. He noticed everything, looking for something to find fault with. The only fault he could find was her unseemly fascination with a man twice her age. As for her looks, her skin was clear, her eyelashes long, even her earlobes were shapely. Her hair wasn’t the fashionable brunette that was all the rage this Season. She wasn’t a classic beauty, even though she reminded him of a Venus on a seashell on a cresting wave in a painting he’d once seen. She was too small and piquant for that. But she was perfectly adorable.

So what was she doing hanging on the earl’s sleeve, watching his lips for the birth of his every new word, laughing at his slightest jest, looking sad if he said a somber thing, and expectant
when he so much as cleared his throat? There was a limit to being a good audience. Sarah Sid-dons herself never held an audience as enraptured as Daisy Tanner seemed when the earl so much as spoke to a footman to ask for a new fork, Leland thought moodily.

Now, the Earl of Egremont was a good man and a kindly one, not unhandsome, and in fine condition for a man his age. But even so, he wasn’t the type to set any female’s heart beating faster. Leland knew to an inch what sent a woman into raptures, if only because he himself didn’t—until he got to talk with her awhile and made her forget what she had wanted in a man.

The earl, for all his virtues, wasn’t an irresistible male, either, or even a seductive one. His fortune definitely was both, though. Was that why the Tanner woman acted as though the earl was the only male at the table, in the room, and in the whole of England? She’d
she was rich now. That certainly bore investigating, Leland thought.

Leland glanced at Daffyd, to see if he noticed any of this.

But Daffyd was laughing at something Daisy had just said. Leland sighed. She had a bubbling personality and enough charm to fill three young ladies’ finishing academies. She was, in fact, too good to be true. Especially since she’d been a convict. Of course, the earl and Daffyd had been convicts, too. But they’d been innocent men. Le
land had doubts about Daisy’s infatuation with the earl. It seemed too complete. He himself wasn’t considered a dullard, yet his own most clever comments weren’t met with half the appreciation that the earl’s dullest ones were.

“And so, what are your plans now that you’re back in England, Mrs. Tanner?” Leland asked into a brief conversational silence.

They all stared; his voice had been unintentionally sharp. Daisy’s smile slipped as she looked across the table at him.

“That is to say,” he added in a fashionable drawl, so it would seem he wasn’t that interested in her reply, “one can understand the joy of coming home again. As for myself, when I’ve traveled abroad for any length of time, I’m so
with relief to be home, I can’t even think about what I’ll do the next day. But after a week or so, the old familiar tedium does set in again. So, what are your aims? How do you intend to stave off ennui?”

The earl answered for her. “We didn’t worry about ‘ennui’ back in Botany Bay, Lee. Or ‘the old familiar tedium.’ We worried about the next day. Being there to see it, that is.”

Daisy laughed. “There’s truth. Only after I married, I knew I’d be there, all right. But that wasn’t much better.” She saw Leland’s expression grow chillier, and added, “I know it sounds bad to say anything rude about my deceased husband, my lord, but everyone at this table knows it
was no love match. It wasn’t a match at all, actually, just an unhappy circumstance, at least for me. So I didn’t worry about ennui, either, just escape. And now I’ve done that…” She paused, thought a moment, and then said, “I suppose what I want is something I’m not used to thinking about. Peace, I guess, and happiness, however I find it.”

Which was, Leland thought, a very good thing to say, except that she said it to the earl, and her sad smile was for him alone.

“You must make a list of things that will make you happy and bring you peace,” Helena Masters said unexpectedly.

“Why, so I will,” Daisy said with one of her sudden grins. “And the first thing on my list, I think, would be more of that lovely soup I just had.”

“You’re too easy to please,” the earl said, as he signaled to a footman. “Although my chef isn’t, and he’ll be in ecstasies to hear that his art made the top of your list.”

They all laughed, but there was no laughter in Leland’s eyes as he watched Daisy, only calculation and rising interest. Her answer had been a masterful parry to an excellent thrust, and he loved a good duel.

“No sense in the three of us gents having our port while you two ladies sit by yourselves,” the earl said when they’d finished dinner. “Let’s all
remove to the salon together. Do you play, Daisy?”

“Cards?” she asked. “Yes, very well. My father taught me.”

“Then not very well,” Daffyd said dryly.

She grinned. “There’s that. But I learned things from him he didn’t teach me. I know how much it hurts to lose, so I don’t lose my head when I play.”

“I meant the piano, or the harp,” the earl said. “But we could play cards if you like.”

“Oh,” Daisy said sheepishly. “I used to play the pianoforte, and I did enjoy it, but it’s been years. That will be next on my list: learning to play music again.”

“I’d be happy to play for you now,” Helena said softly. “And teach you later, Mrs. Tanner, if you’d like.”

Daisy exclaimed. “Please, call me that and forget the other; I’m trying to.”

“Even in company?” her companion asked.

“Everywhere,” Daisy said vehemently.

They left the table and walked down a long hall until they came to the salon. A fire was already blazing in the hearth, the draperies had been pulled across the long windows, and the lamps had been lit. The servants obviously listened to what their master said as much as to what he asked of them, because several lamps had already been brought to the ornate pianoforte that stood in one corner.

The earl saw Daisy comfortably settled on a couch and went to the piano. “This came with the house. It’s decorated with gods and goddesses,” he said, indicating the intricate gilded paintings on the ebony wood. “But I don’t know when it was last tuned, so I can’t say if it still sounds heavenly.”

Helena Masters strummed her fingers along the keys. “Some notes need adjustment, but I think something good can come out of it. It’s a fine piece.”

“Then let’s find a fine piece for it,” he said. He opened the top of the bench, took out some music sheets, and began to discuss them with her.

“I’ll be back in a moment,” Daffyd told Daisy. “I’m off to the necessary, not that I’m supposed to tell a lady that,” he added, lowering his voice. “But you know me, Daisy, and I didn’t want you thinking I’d deserted you.”

“And you know me, Daffy,” she said. “I’m no lady.”

“You are, and time you started thinking of yourself as one,” he said. “Here, Lee,” he told his half brother, standing nearby, “entertain the lass until I get back, will you?”

“My pleasure,” Leland said. He ambled over, sat next to Daisy, settled back, stretched out his long legs, put his arm across the top of the settee, and smiled down at her. “So,” he said. “Music is at the top of your list. After soup, I suppose. What
comes next? I hope it’s me. Please don’t break my heart by saying no, at least not right away.”

He was smiling, such a snug, comfortable, friendly smile that Daisy could hardly believe it belonged on the face of the tall, cold nobleman she’d just passed the last hours with. It made him look years younger, and entirely approachable. This close she could see his teeth were even and white, his skin clear; the smile was wide enough to show a crease in the side of his left cheek, making that long, thin face look rakish and attractive. The smile spoke volumes. Without a word, it told her of his understanding and fellowship, and complete interest in her answer.

But the most fascinating thing was what the smile did to his usually cold, bored eyes. It turned their dark blue to the shade of warm tropical waters as they gazed at her with all-encompassing concern. She was embarrassed and didn’t know where to look, which was just as well, because she couldn’t look away.

As he focused on her, she realized he seemed to emanate a growing warmth that she could feel in every pore. He positively radiated a subtle heat. His gaze gentled, and she realized he was now looking at her lips, but not as though he was expecting to see her answer there. Her mouth tingled as though he’d touched it. So did other soft parts of her body, to her utter astonishment. But she couldn’t help it. He was no longer chilly, or aloof. Neither was there anything foppish or
feminine about him now; he seemed entirely, intensely masculine, although he didn’t smell like the men she’d known. Instead he gave off the heady scents of soap and spice and sandalwood, warm sandalwood.

He was something she’d never known, a man who desired her in a way she’d never encountered, but with great lust, nevertheless. That, she knew. He made her remember he was a man and she a woman and what he wanted had nothing to do with the rough invasion she hated, and yet everything to do with it.

She caught her breath. Her skin felt damp, her heartbeat picked up, she felt trapped and frightened, and yet fascinated. She wanted to answer; she wanted to get away from him. But she couldn’t remember his question.

“So, do you like Papa Hayden this evening?” the earl called from across the room.

The viscount turned his head to answer in his usual laconic tones. “Yes, if Mrs. Masters would be so kind. Always a treat.”

Daisy looked away and swallowed hard. She gave herself a mental shake. She didn’t know what had come over her; this was the same effete nobleman she’d met days before. Was she mad? His interests lay in what she was wearing, not the body beneath. She’d probably had too much wine. They’d likely slipped brandy into the sauces, too. As for the viscount? He probably just lusted after her gown, she told herself, and felt much better.

“Singing lessons,” she said, making him turn his head to her again. “Finding a house for myself is first. But singing is next on my list. Because I can’t play as well as Helena, and won’t even try.”

“You don’t know how good you are at anything unless you try it,” he said softly, smiling as though he knew exactly what she’d been thinking.

But she’d been caught in his web before, and she learned fast. She would not amuse him at her own expense. She rose to her feet. “Then I’d better go watch her fingers for a start,” she said.

Then, as though she’d narrowly escaped something fearful and still worried about being caught in its clutches again, she made her way over to the piano to join Helena and the earl. She could swear she felt the viscount’s gaze, as if he’d placed a large, warm hand on her back, so she moved smartly while trying to look as though she were only strolling there.

“They make a nice couple,” Daffyd said as he settled down on the settee next to Leland, inclining his head to where the earl, Daisy, and her companion were gathered at the piano.

“The earl and your Daisy?” Leland asked wryly.

“Geoff and Helena Masters,” Daffyd said. “But he don’t see her at all. She might as well be the piano.”

“Charming woman, but she’s just a companion,” Leland said. “He’s a nobleman; he’s not supposed to see her.”

“Not Geoff. Class and rank don’t matter to him,” Daffyd said, slipping into slum argot as he sometimes did when he wanted to make a point about his origins. “Nothing like being locked up with the riff and raff as well as the toffs to learn that a man or a woman’s worth ain’t in their class or rank. No, he doesn’t see the companion only because he’s too busy seeing Daisy. She sees to that. You were right. She’s after him. I don’t know why, and it don’t make me happy. It wouldn’t exactly be a mismatch, but it wouldn’t be right, neither.

“She’s had a hard life, and Tanner was a right bastard,” Daffyd said. “But that’s no reason for her to try to snare Geoff now. He needs a mature woman. Whatever else she is, Daisy ain’t that. It isn’t that I’m afraid of being cut out of the will if he breeds a houseful of kids with her, because I won’t be. I’m not his son and heir in the first place, and anyway, I don’t need his money. I’ve done all right for myself, and I think and hope he’ll live forever. It’s because I’m not sure she’s right for him. You were right about that. It doesn’t fit, and I don’t like things that don’t fit. Means somehow something’s askew. So, what’s to do?”

“Talking to him won’t help,” Leland said, watching how Daisy hung on the earl’s sleeve, this time literally. “Warn a man about something and he
has to look at it more closely. Once he concentrates on it, it may be he’ll decide he wants it even if he didn’t before. By the way, do you think he wants her?”

BOOK: Edith Layton
10.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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