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Daffyd shook his head. “Dunno. Hard to tell with him. But he’s available and male and he breathes, so he must. I’m as faithful to my Meg as the sea is to the shore, and glad of it, but even I can’t stop looking at Daisy. She’s an eyeful, ain’t she? And it won’t do any good to talk to her, neither. She’s learned to keep her thoughts to herself; we all did, but her, especially. If she’d ever told Tanner what she wanted, he’d use it against her, and she isn’t stupid.”

They stared at the trio at the piano.

“Have you investigated her finances?” Leland asked. “She says she’s rich, but she was only a prison guard’s wife, after all.”

“Aye. Still, Tanner was the cheapest man I ever met. He squirreled away every bit of bribe he ever got, and he took every one he could squeeze out of his job. But that wouldn’t make him rich. He did invest with Geoff, and that made rich men of many of us. I’ll look into it. Don’t think she’s lying, though. She knows it would be too easy to find out the truth. That’s the thing about dealing with a woman like her; she knows every angle. Doesn’t mean she’s up to no good, just means she has her wits about her, because she’s had to.” He looked at Daisy and sighed. “Won’t be the end of the world if he does marry her,
I suppose. Just not the best thing for either of them, I think.”

“So do I. But it’s early days. Don’t go and buy a wedding gift yet,” Leland said, stretching his long body as he spoke. “There’s a long road to travel before we get to sit on either side of a flower-draped aisle. Geoff’s not a rash man or a fool. I don’t know what your Daisy is. But I mean to find out.”

“Well then, good. But Lee?”

Something in his half brother’s voice made Leland turn his head to look at him.

“Whatever you do, don’t hurt her. She’s a game ’un, and she’s been through hell. Maybe all she does want is a little peace.”

“Maybe,” Leland agreed. “Who doesn’t? I won’t hurt her. I hope to merely educate her.”

But Daffyd didn’t smile. “She’s a friend, Lee. I mean it.”

One thin brow went up. “Indeed? You’re very serious. Very well, so am I. I won’t hurt her, I’ll promise you that. I don’t think I’m capable of it anyway, in any sense. But you have my word on it. I just want to find out what’s happening.”

“And your vanity is wounded,” Daffyd said.

“Of course,” Leland agreed so pleasantly that Daffyd didn’t know if he meant it or not. But it didn’t matter to him. He was content. He had Leland’s word, and no bond was stronger.

 

“Well, that was an evening!” Daisy said as she shed her cloak when she got back to her hotel
room that night. Her maid took it. “Thank you,” she told the girl. “Now go to bed, it’s late. Look at that,” Daisy told Helena with a crooked grin, as the maid scuttled off to do her bidding. “Me, ordering a maid around as though I’d done it all my life, when my father couldn’t afford help at home for years before we were arrested. I feel good and bad about being mistress to a servant, I can tell you.”

“If your father had been more cautious, that is to say, more temperate, you would have had scores of servants,” Helena murmured.

“Aye,” Daisy agreed, as she sank to a chair. “But ‘cautious’ isn’t the word. Nor is ‘temperate’; he didn’t know the meaning of either word. Thing is, he was a damned fool, poor fellow. He drank and gambled too much, had no regard for the future, and thought too much of his ability to slip out of trouble. I can’t even say he got that way because he missed my mother when she died, as I’d like to. Because as I heard it, his drinking and gambling was one of the things that sent her to an early grave.”

She looked at Helena and added, sadly, “I grieve for what he might have been, but not for him. No, I can’t. He sold me to Tanner to get himself better treatment on the ship, you see.”

“You said he wanted to protect you. You said he did it to save you from further indignity,” Helena reminded her gently.

“So he might have done, if he’d known he was
dying,” Daisy said, pulling the ribbon from her curls, laying her head back, and staring at the ceiling. “I don’t think he did, and I’m not sure he would have even if he had known. I tell folks that so they won’t think worse of me, because people do judge you by your parents. If they think he was a rogue, what will they think of me? We both went to Botany Bay, and they say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I didn’t fall—I was thrown,” she added. “But now that I know you better, I don’t think I have to lie anymore.”

“You don’t,” Helena said. “You aren’t responsible for his actions. But think about it; you may have been right all along, he might have given Mr. Tanner your hand for your own protection.”

Daisy turned her head. She was sleepy and mussed, but still looked charming. Helena thought her new employer could do nothing to change that. She was a remarkably radiant creature, inside and out.

“I don’t think so,” Daisy said. “He told me I had to marry Tanner right away or we’d really be dished. I didn’t want to, but I obeyed. Well, I was only sixteen and frightened to death of the life I saw in jail, and it was worse on the ship, if that’s possible. So I did what he said. My father never said it was just to protect me, and he would have if he’d thought he’d done something noble. He loved praise. No, he was just a man. You can’t count on any of them.”

Helena gasped.

Daisy looked up at her.

“What a thing to say! It’s not true,” Helena exclaimed. “My father, my dear Vincent…they were men, and they were wonderful people. They never tyrannized or drank or gambled; they put family before themselves, always. Poor Vincent even gave his life for his country and the men under his command. Sacrifice came naturally to him. I can only hope my son grows up to be such a man. The men I’ve known have mostly been valiant and brave.

“Sometimes men are vain creatures, that’s true,” she added wistfully. “Even Vincent preened when I told him how good he looked in his uniform. But so are women vain, some notoriously so. We’re encouraged to be. Men can be irresponsible, too,” Helena continued, as Daisy watched her with a darkening expression. “But so can women. It’s true men seem to love adventure more than we do, but that may be because we can’t have adventures the way they can. I believe many of us would, if we could. There’s not that much difference between the sexes except that men are trained to responsibility, and so we’re surprised when they’re not trustworthy.”

“We don’t force men to our pleasures,” Daisy said flatly.

Helena was silent a second. Then she shook her head. “But, Daisy, most men don’t, most don’t even want to. It isn’t right to taint a whole gender
because of experience with one wicked representative of that sex.”

“That’s true,” Daisy said, the darkness leaving her eyes. “Look at Geoff, I mean, the earl. He’s noble and kind, and I never saw him do a cruel thing to a woman, or heard of him doing anything like, neither. I can’t imagine him doing that, and don’t believe he ever would.”

“Of course not,” Helena said.

“Yes,” Daisy said with a sigh of satisfaction. “That’s why he’d make a perfect husband: he’s a kind, noble, and considerate gentleman.”

Helena frowned. “It’s forward of me to even ask. But it would make things easier if I knew. Daisy, are you contemplating him for your next husband? Are you setting your cap for him?”

“Of course,” Daisy said in surprise. “That’s why I came to England. He still thinks of me as another man’s wife, but I hope to change his mind about that soon. The sooner the better.”

Helena was still.

“You don’t approve?”

“It’s not for me to approve or disapprove,” Helena said, knotting her hands together. “But he is twice your age.”

“Yes, but men like young wives. I know he doesn’t need an heir, and that’s fine with me, too. If we don’t have any babies, I’ll have lots of grand-babies to play with. You heard that Daffyd’s wife is anticipating. Well, so is Amyas’s wife. All the earl’s sons are in the same boat. From what Daffyd
said with a wink, I think Christian’s wife will be popping out a babe soon, too. I’ll be up to my ears in babies if I marry Geoff!”

“And the process of begetting them?” Helena asked, her eyes wide. She knew she was risking her position, and a fine one it was, but she couldn’t restrain herself. Was this glowing young woman actually saying she didn’t want a vibrant young man in her bed? She remembered her own youth and her young husband and the sensual joys they’d shared. She herself was a mother now, and she wouldn’t want her own daughter to make such a match when she came of age.

Helena hoped that was the only reason that the idea of the earl and Daisy together in a marriage bed seemed so wrong to her.

“You don’t mind missing that?” she asked Daisy, her face coloring up. “It’s not mine to say, but however hale he is, it’s a universal truth that an older man is not as…vigorous as a young one.”

“Exactly,” Daisy said. “A man can’t perform as regular when he gets older, and he loses the inclination, too. That’s what all the whor—Lord! I have to watch my mouth. I mean that’s what all the tarts in jail said. It’s harder work for them enticing older men. They have the money but not the honey. That’s what the girls used to complain, because they needed traffic to keep their rents paid. But a husband like that would suit me fine. One like that, or like Viscount Haye, who doesn’t want females in the first place!”

Helena gasped again. “What? Viscount Haye? Are you mad? Excuse me. This whole conversation is irregular, I know it,” she murmured, as if to herself. “But if you’re going to dismiss me, it might as well be for honesty.” She drew herself up, folded her hands, and announced, “Haye is one of the premiere rakes in London.”

“No!” Daisy said in surprise.

“I’d have warned you about him right off,” Helena said. “But I thought you knew, and anyhow, I didn’t believe he’d ever set out to seduce a friend of his friend. Gentlemen have their scruples, and that, I believe, is one of the foremost among them.”

Now Daisy’s eyes were wide. “The viscount? But all he cares about is clothes. And he minces and…” She hesitated. That wasn’t true. The viscount didn’t mince. She thought of how he walked, with long easy strides, and the way he moved, with supple grace. “Well, he doesn’t seem interested in females,” she concluded weakly, “only in what they wear.”

“He’s interested, believe me,” Helena said. “He’s famous for it.”

“But he drawls…and acts the man of fashion.”

“He
is
the man of fashion, and not the least because he’s a rake. Oh, dear,” Helena said sadly. “And I thought I’d like it here with you. But I know I’ve been too outspoken. Please give me a second chance. I won’t be so bold again. Please forgive me.”

“Of course not,” Daisy said. “There’s nothing to forgive. I need someone I can talk with who’ll be honest with me. Now, don’t be foolish, please. Just, promise, always be honest with me, and I’ll be happy.”

“I’ll try,” Helena said, turning her face away. But she didn’t promise. Because there were some things she would prefer never to mention. Such as the fact that she thought the Earl of Egremont would be a wonderful husband, just not for Daisy Tanner.

L
eland and Daffyd had their eyes fixed on Daisy, as did every male they’d passed so far. They were strolling through Vauxhall Gardens behind Daisy, the earl, and Helena Masters. It was sunset, and the park was beginning to be thronged with fashionable people as well as commoners there for the evening’s entertainment.

Daisy was hard to miss. She was wearing a low-cut green gown, enlivened by a green and yellow patterned shawl thrown over her shoulders. Her vivid hair was done up with white ribbons, and she wore a crystal rose on a silver chain at her neck. The crystal caught the last sunlight and danced rainbows on the white skin of her breast. She shone like the setting sun, and her
radiance made the earl, dressed in a dun jacket, dark breeches and boots, and high white neck cloth, fade into the approaching twilight.

“Do you know?” Leland finally told Daffyd in a soft under voice. “I believe watching and waiting is foolish. You’re leaving Town soon, and besides, you don’t know how to ask her. I think
I
should see just how serious she really is about Geoff.”

Daffyd turned, his eyes grave. “You said you wouldn’t harm her.”

“Gads!” Leland said in annoyance. “What do you think I mean to do? Kidnap her and force the truth from her? I only thought to try a little friendly persuasion. She’s a grown woman, a widow, and one who’s been in darker places than I’ll ever know—you said so yourself. I simply meant I’d throw out lures and see if she took any. I may be a beanpole, with a nose that’s a caricaturist’s delight, homely as an old boot, in fact, but I have been known to attract a female or two in my time, you know.”

“I do know,” Daffyd said. “Too well. You almost stole my Meg from me.”

“Oh, yes,” Leland said sarcastically. “If I’d half a chance, you’d be visiting her in
my
house today. But she couldn’t see me once she’d met you.”

“She saw enough. She still says you’re madly attractive. I don’t know how you do it, but you do. All right. Daisy can take care of herself. She survived prison, Tanner, and Botany Bay. I guess she can deal with you. See what you can find out.
If she really loves Geoff—then good luck to her. I don’t know her that well, but as I said, she’s a good sort, in all. Oh, by the way. She is rich. I asked someone who would know. It’s true.”

“I know,” Leland said. “I asked, too. But she’s not as rich as the earl is; few in England are. That’s always a lure. Some people never have enough money. Well, then, let’s see what happens, although there’s not much I can do if she keeps hanging on his arm like a bracelet. But there’s always dinner. She’ll
have
to let go so he can eat. Not that there’ll be much of that. Dinner here means watered wine, shaved ham, and bits of fruit, for a huge price. What a delightful evening,” he said too brightly. “Going to a fireworks display. What fun. You know, Daffy, if you and Geoff weren’t such good friends, I could think of many more interesting things to do.”

“Your virtue will save you money and the possibility of a nasty rash.”

Leland laughed. “I don’t have to pay
all
my flirts, you know. And thank you, Mother, but I listened to your lectures and I’m always very careful…” The laughter left his voice as he saw who was approaching the earl. “Oh my God,” he breathed. “Speak of the devil and there she is.”

They stared at the elegant woman who had paused to speak to the earl. She was a tall, beautifully dressed woman of middle years, with fair skin and fairer hair, and eyes that were dazzlingly deep blue even from a distance. Every
thing about her was impeccable; even her smile seemed to have been measured for a fit before she tried it on.

“Our noble parent,” Leland said. “I thought she was still in Bath. I didn’t know she was back in Town. Did you?”

“Why should I? “Daffyd said with a shrug. “She only calls on me when she needs a favor, and doesn’t acknowledge me to the world at any time. No surprise there; after all, she left me a week after I was born, and didn’t speak to me again until I surprised her by turning up again last year. Remember? Much I care. But you’re the heir.”

“Much that matters. She left me when I was three to run off with your father, and only came back a year later because he beat her. Remember?” he echoed mockingly. “Well, you wouldn’t. That’s when she got you. One of the few things she’s done that I approve of. I didn’t at the time, of course, because your advent was a fact she neglected to share. Actually, I wouldn’t mind a few
decades
without her now. Neither would my baby brother, but he’s lucky. He’s in school and almost never has to see her. I, unfortunately, run into her at social occasions more often than is comfortable for either of us.”

“God!” Daffyd said. “What do you suppose she’ll make of Daisy?”

“Mincemeat,” Leland said, and walked over to greet his mother.

“Dear Haye,” the dowager viscountess Haye said, greeting Leland and offering the right side of her cheek to the air at the side of his left cheek. “Daffyd,” she said, nodding her head in a slight bow. “Heavens. Is this some sort of family excursion?”

“Mrs. Tanner is an old friend of mine and Daffyd’s,” the earl said. “As the viscount Haye is also a friend, we’re all taking her out on the Town to see the sights.”

“And you have never seen fireworks?” the viscountess asked Daisy, taking her in from her hair ribbons to her slippers in one long sweeping glance, pausing only to stare at the low neck of her dress, one eyebrow moving ever so slightly upward as she did.

Daisy had been smiling, but her smile stiffened when she saw how the older woman was weighing her up, and managing to criticize her without so much as saying a word. She felt the tension in the air around her, slowly let out a breath, and then smiled again.

“Fireworks? I’ve seen some when there was a celebration,” she answered. “But never what they’re supposed to have here in London. I hear their displays boggle the mind, and I’ve a mind to have mine boggled.”

She laughed. The men did, too, but the viscountess only smiled her cool smile.

“I see. And you are visiting from…?” the viscountess persisted.

The earl didn’t leap in to answer the question. Neither did Daffyd or Leland. So there was nothing for it but the truth, Daisy thought resignedly. Might as well know now as later how she’d fare in high society. Men might accept her, but women ran the
ton,
and if this female wasn’t Society with a capital “S,” she knew nothing at all. Geoff might marry her whatever anyone said, because he was that sort of fellow. But how much easier her road would be if she were accepted first.

She smiled her usual wide, radiant smile, an inch short of laughter. “I was raised in Sussex,” she said. “Then I went to London with my father. We stayed a while on Newgate Street, and then took a sea voyage halfway ’round the world. My poor papa never left the ship, at least alive. I settled in Botany Bay, where we’d been bound, and now I’m free, I just decided to come back home to England.”

The older woman didn’t blink. “Ah. A friend of the earl’s from the old days, indeed. And your husband, did he come with you?”

“He’d love to have done,” Daisy said. “But he’s dead. And so I’d be all on my own if the earl, and Daffyd, and the viscount Haye hadn’t taken pity on me. They’re very kind to widows, as you must know.”

“Do I?” the viscountess said softly. “I’d no idea they were so very charitable. How good for you to have such friends. Was your husband a
companion of the earl’s in those days; is that how you came to know each other?”

“What a surprise,” Leland drawled. “You didn’t tell us you were applying for a job with my mama, Mrs. Tanner. In what capacity, may one ask?”

“I merely wished to know how such a lovely young creature like Mrs. Tanner came to befriend a man of the earl’s age and condition, Leland,” his mother snapped.

“My condition is fine, my lady,” the earl said, bowing. “Thank you for worrying.”

“Lord, how the gentlemen do rush to slay dragons for you, don’t they, Mrs. Tanner?” the viscountess said with a thin smile. “Although I hardly qualify as one, I promise you. But I was ever an inquisitive creature. Do forgive me if I seemed to be prying. And my lord,” she told the earl, “I never meant to imply you were in anything but fine fettle. One only needs to look at you to see that. Still, I must admit I wondered until I saw you just now. I’m relieved to discover all’s well. One never sees you at the usual social occasions, after all.”

“I fear one never will,” the earl said. “I’m not much of a hand for balls and musicales…though I suppose I’ll have to learn to be, won’t I?” he asked Daisy. “At least if I want to show you all of London’s gaiety.”

Daisy’s smile was relieved. “I don’t want to force you to do anything,” she said. “I can live
without balls and musicales. After all, I’ve done it all my life.”

“No, you shall have it all,” the earl said, patting her hand where it lay on his arm. “Especially because you haven’t seen them before.”

The viscountess didn’t blink an eye, but those eyes looked keener now as she watched the earl and Daisy. “One hesitates to ask,” she said, “but there are times when one must. Would she have gone to such affairs had she not left England?”

Total silence fell over the people before her. Leland’s eyes narrowed and his lips grew tight.

His mother didn’t look at all perturbed. “I ask in order to spare Mrs. Tanner’s feelings,” she went on calmly, “not to wound them. London is one of the best cities in the world to visit, I understand, and a foreigner can get much pleasure from it. But there are some places that can only be visited for pleasure if one is considered fit to be there.”

“Or,”
Leland said coldly, “if one is good at disguises, and can dress and speak like a lady or a gentleman.”

“I’ve done it many times myself, my lady,” Daffyd said. “And well you know it.”

“Yes, I do,” she said. “It’s done. How else does the footman get to elope with the duke’s daughter, or how is a jealous mistress finally able to see her gentleman friend’s wife up close? But I thought a lovely young woman like Mrs. Tanner wouldn’t get much pleasure out of being an incognito, espe
cially on the Earl of Egremont’s arm. There’d be such gossip and tattle, after all.”

The others fell still, in shock. None of these things were proper to say in front of any young woman who might be Quality, even if she was a widow. Daisy knew that, too.

“They can gossip and tattle all they want, my lady,” Daisy said, taking her hand off the earl’s arm and stepping away from him. “And I’d give them good cause to. I
was
a prisoner at Botany Bay, transported for my father’s crimes. But I think it would be stale gossip. Papa was Sir Richard Searle of the Sussex Searles, one of the last of an old family. Everyone knew he poached on his neighbor’s grounds one too many times. It was the talk of our little town, at least.

“Papa hadn’t a penny left to pay anyone off. He’d gambled everything away and alienated whatever family remained, lost all his friends and made new enemies, and was a scandal in the neighborhood. He couldn’t be hanged, understand. Not for stealing dinner, at least, like any commoner would be. There are some benefits to being wellborn. But they wanted him far away, so they transported him, and me with him. As it turned out, he went farther away than they’d thought he would, because he died before he got to Botany Bay, and by then, no one cared but me.”

She shrugged, and well dressed as she was, looked very lost and vulnerable standing there in the growing twilight.

The earl lifted her little gloved hand to his lips. “That you were punished was a worse crime,” he said.

She looked down in pretty confusion.

“Well, that’s done it,” Daffyd murmured to Leland as they finally parted from the viscountess. “Attack an honorable man’s escort and he’ll find himself married to her in no time.”

“Not
that
honorable man, at least not if she’s not equally so, I promise you,” Leland said. “I said, leave it to me. Now pretend you’re having a wonderful time. Or go have one. Find an old friend to talk to, or a nice quiet place to compose odes to read to Meg when you get home. But let me see what I can do.”

“I doubt even you can budge her now. Looks like Geoff took the bait and the line and will run with it.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. I can, at least, find out why the chit is so in love with Geoff.
If
she is. And if she isn’t, then why she wants him to think she is.”

Daffyd looked at him strangely. “And you’re doing all of this for Geoff’s sake?”

Leland smiled. “You know me well. Generosity isn’t
always
its own reward. There are always ancillary benefits, if a man is lucky.”

 

“I hate to leave you alone,” the earl told Daisy an hour later, hesitating as he stood by their table.

Daisy laughed. “Alone? There are hundreds of people here tonight.”

“Thousands,” he said. “But you’ll be alone at the table.”

“Not for long,” she said, smiling. “Helena said she’d be right back. And you won’t be far away. Anyway, it’s nice to just sit back and relax. I can’t wait to see the fireworks but they won’t go off until it’s full dark, and night’s slow in coming at this time of year. I’m safe enough, Geoff. You said the fellow in the Bath chair was an old friend; you’ll look no-account if you just keep waving to him. I have nothing to say to him, so it would only be awkward if you took me to his table. So, go. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”

The earl wavered. Daffyd had gone to visit with a friend he’d spied at another table; Daisy’s companion had excused herself, obviously to find the convenience, and Leland must have done the same because he’d also vanished. The outdoor dining area in the park was set up for the brief English summer. It was a circular area outside an enclosed rotunda that was open on all sides. This dining section was quieter, it had small tables and chairs, and an ornate railing enclosing all. There was an airy canopy on poles stirring over the tables, but it didn’t keep out the soft spring breeze. Not only the breeze was free to roam; anyone could enter the place. The prices kept the rabble out.

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