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BOOK: Edith Layton
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Musician played soft music in the background,
there were lit torches everywhere, and urns filled with flowers lent more beauty to the place. Londoners knew how to make money from any spectacle, and a night of fireworks drew in huge crowds. The wealthiest came here; the common man ate food brought from home or from one of the many roaming vendors. The earl knew Daisy would be safe enough. And his friend Roger Crandall couldn’t walk too well, so it was only right that the earl visit at his table. Daisy didn’t know him, and in truth, he was an old bore, so it wasn’t fair to either of them to drag her along. Still, the earl hesitated.

“Do go,” Daisy said. “He keeps watching you, and I feel guilty. I’ve been alone in a colony filled with hardened criminals and took care of myself very well. I don’t have to here. I’ll just rest and wait for you.”

“Very well,” he said. “But if anyone troubles you, call a waiter.”

Daisy smiled. If anyone troubled her, she’d give the troublemaker a thing or two to think about. But she nodded, and watched Geoff leave. Then she closed her eyes at last. She sat back and felt the night breeze stir her hair. She relaxed, feeling safe and content. She was in England again, and entirely free. Geoff liked her, and he was still the warmhearted, generous man she’d known. She thought lazily, considering her options. In time Geoff might come to love her, or at least maybe want to adopt her, as he had the
boys. Except in her case, he’d probably be willing to marry her instead. Things were finally going her way.

It didn’t take much to make her happy. New clothes delighted her; just being in London did, too. The opera and the theater were lovely, but it was also been great fun to come here tonight and stroll along, meeting people, being treated like a lady. But being alone and feeling safe while being so was in itself a rare treat for her, and she relished it.

“Fie!” a familiar voice purred by her ear. “They left you alone? Villains. That’s like leaving a pearl out on a velvet cushion in full view, with no guards around it. But never fear, I’m here.”

Leland’s voice stirred the smallest hairs up and down her arms and on the back of her neck. Her nostrils flared, the breeze brought the scent of warm sandalwood to her nose. She tried to banish the sensations. “Anyone trying to snatch that pearl would lose a hand,” she said, without opening her eyes. “I didn’t fall down in the last rain, my lord.”

She heard him settle in the chair next to her.

“‘My lord’?” he asked in intimate teasing tones. “But why? You call the earl Geoff and Daffyd Daffy. I’m
consumed
with jealousy. Please feel free to call me Lee, or Leland, or even Haye, if you must. Or dear Lee, or my darling, if you will.”

“Not likely, my lord,” she said, and kept her eyes closed.

“I offend you?” he asked softly.

If only he did, she thought, and said, “No, but I don’t know you.”

“Easily remedied,” he said. “Just talk with me awhile.”

He’d been much easier to talk with when she’d thought he didn’t desire females. Now she felt wary and uncomfortable with him. It wasn’t only that. He’d changed. He’d been ironic and distant before, languid, amused, and disinterested. Now, maybe because she knew the truth about him, or maybe because he’d changed when he was with her, he was definitely interested.

And now he was too close, and she realized he was trying to get closer. While she knew how to deal with an outright flirt or a lusty boor, she didn’t know how to talk with this elegant nobleman. He was friendly and charming, but everything he said was overlaid with innuendo and invitations that could be taken many ways. She’d never met anyone like him before. The only thing she could do was to be herself, and watch her step while she was at it. That was why she couldn’t look at him. The last time they’d spoken together, when he’d looked into her eyes, somehow he’d been able to bypass her usual defenses.

“Talk to you?” she asked. “If talking told a person true things about the other person, there’d be no wars.”

“A very wise saying,” he said.

“It’s not mine; my father used to say it,” she said. “But as you know, he wasn’t very wise.”

“Which, I suppose, proves your point,” he said. “Are you going to open your eyes? Or did the sight of me strike you blind?”

“I’m trying to get accustomed to the dark,” she lied. “Daffyd said that if you close your eyes first, then when you see the fireworks they look brighter.”

“Very true. Except that they aren’t going off for an hour. If you keep your eyes closed, you may be asleep by then.”

“Not if you keep talking to me.”

He laughed in what seemed like genuine delight. “But I must. I’m sitting here, and I get lonely. Anyway, the earl has seen me return. What will he think of me if I leave again? I’m an English gentleman, and I can’t leave a lady alone in the night.”

“I’m not a lady,” she said.

“You know,” he said in a flatter voice, “at the risk of being rude, I have to tell you that
does
pall, after a bit. You were born a lady, and raised one. What happened after doesn’t change that. It can’t.”

Her eyes snapped open. She glared at him. “What happened changed me forever, my lord.
You
try living in Newgate, being shipped out on a prison hulk, living with the lowest and trying to stay alive at all costs, and so then marrying…Well,” she said, swallowing hard, as she
forced down more bitter words, “all I can say is that it
does
change you, forever. I can’t think of myself as a
lady
anymore.”

“And so you don’t think of the earl as a gentleman, either?” he asked with interest.

“That’s not what I meant. Of course he’s a gentleman. He always was and always will be.”

He tilted his head to the side, and smiled. “Yes. And so it is with you. Now, there are some ladies born who will always be common, and some commoners who will always be ladies, in spite of what those of my class might say. That can’t be changed. You can’t help it. And you ought to stop denying it. You don’t want the earl to start believing it, do you?”

The torchlight showed his eyes to be the color that lingered on the edges of the twilight sky as the day gave way to night. But they were warm, and human, and seemed to search her soul.

She shivered, finding she wanted to move closer to his compelling warmth, until she reminded herself that he was a virile male, and so no better than any she’d known, and perhaps even a bit worse because he could make her forget it, even for a minute.

“Geoff knows me,” she said, tearing her gaze from his, and looking down at her lap. “I don’t try to deceive him. I don’t think I could. So if he thinks I’m a lady, that’s fine. I’ll try to be one.”

“It isn’t a matter of trying. Or of airs and graces,” he said. “It’s to do with honor and heart, this
matter of ladies and gentlemen. But of course in Society, it’s only semantics. My own mama, who thankfully is too busy or pretending to be at her table to bother with us, is deemed a great lady. But she’s not, far from it. The earl
is
a gentleman, and not only one born so. And you
are
a lady, even if not born to a title. There it is.”

“And you?” she asked, looking up at him because she couldn’t help herself.

“Oh, me?” He seemed surprised. Then his smile was sad. “I don’t know. I
try
to be a gentleman. I really do. It’s a thing I can’t know. Perhaps you could tell me when you get to know me. And you will, Mrs. Tanner, I mean to see that you do.”

She didn’t know if that was a promise or a threat, and in spite of everything she planned and felt and knew, she was threatened and challenged—and thrilled by it.

“R
eady to go see the fireworks?” Geoff asked Daisy when he returned to their table.

“Go?” Daisy blinked and turned her head from the viscount’s steady gaze, feeling her face grow warm. Geoff’s words cut into the strange daze she’d been in as she’d gazed into the viscount’s eyes. She felt as though she’d been caught doing something illicit.

“Oh. Yes,” she said, snatching up her wrap and bolting from her chair as though it had started burning. “But why go?”

“Because though they can be seen from here, they can be seen better from elsewhere,” the earl said. “I didn’t mean to rush you, but I saw Daffyd
and he said he’d be here directly. We have to wait for your companion though. By the way, shouldn’t she be back by now?”

“Blast me for a fool!” Daisy exclaimed. “She should be! She went to the lady’s withdrawing room, wherever it is, and didn’t come back, and I didn’t notice. Give a dog a good meal and it forgets the streets,” she muttered. “No female ought to walk alone at night, here or anywhere. At least not one as gently bred as Helena. What was I thinking? Come, who’ll go with me to find her?”

Leland looked at her with surprise. “I would if you had to. But you don’t. Don’t worry. They keep the rabble out of this place; she’ll be fine.”

“The rabble isn’t what I’m worrying about right now,” Daisy snapped. “You gentlemen do your share of mischief, you know. And Helena’s a fine-looking woman. Let’s go.”

“I’ll come with you,” the earl said. “What was she wearing?”

“Lavender, she always wears lavender,” Leland said.

Trust him to know that,
Daisy thought, and said, “Not as of tomorrow, she won’t,” she said, scowling fiercely. “She’s got a lovely saffron frock coming, and a red one, too.”

“Wait,” Leland said, raising his head to see over the top of the crowd. “I see her coming now.”

Helena walked into the torch-lit circle, and Daisy immediately rushed over to her. “Where have you been?” she demanded, hands on hips.

“I’m sorry I took so long,” Helena said breathlessly, and then, seeing them all standing, looking at her, her face flushed. “There was such a long line. Pardon me if I delayed you.”

“No need to ask pardon, just don’t go alone again,” Daisy said gruffly.

“You’re not angry?”

“Well, I was,” Daisy said as she pulled on her gloves. “But not at you. I’m sorry I let you go alone. I don’t know what I was thinking. Forgive me.”

“It’s not my place,” Helena began, but Daisy cut her off sharply.

“Bother. It is so. You work for me, but really with me, and I should look after you.”

The earl smiled to see the diminutive Daisy claim she was looking after her taller, older companion.

Leland didn’t. He stood watching Daisy, head to the side.

“She’s wonderful, isn’t she?” the earl asked him softly. “After all she’s suffered, still fresh as the daisy she’s named after.”

“So it would appear,” Leland said. “Ah, here’s Daffyd. Shall we go?”

They strolled away from the outdoor café.

“Wave ‘ta’ to Mama,” Leland told Daffyd. “She’s watching us go.”

“She’s watched us all night,” Daffyd grumbled, but nonetheless raised a hand in farewell.

“Nicely done,” Leland said. “You made her look away for the first time in an hour.”

“Why the sudden fascination with us, do you think?” his half brother asked.

“Us, or Mrs. Tanner? Or Geoff, or the fact that we’re all together? One never knows what interests her, or why, except for the fact that whatever it is, I’d bet that it’s something she thinks will benefit her. Never mind, she won’t follow us. She only spies if she can do it casually. I know a good place to watch the fireworks from,” he said more loudly to the earl and Daisy, who were walking ahead of them.

“Lead on then,” the earl said.

“No,” Leland said. “Let’s keep to protocol. An earl leads this pack. We trail behind. Mrs. Masters, take my arm, if you will.”

“Thank you, but it isn’t necessary,” Helena said.

“I must differ,” Leland said, offering her his arm. “This is a public place, and the public, as you know, comes in all guises. Once out of the charmed circle of torchlight, anything may happen. I like to playact as a hero, please indulge me.”

Helena put her hand on his arm and they paced down the path.

Leland had been right, Daisy realized. The paths were crowded with Londoners of all classes and conditions. The fireworks display was free, and always spectacular. But that wasn’t the whole lure. As with fairs and public masquerades, many came because of the rare chance for all the classes
to mingle. It wasn’t only that the poor wanted a glimpse of the rich; some in the upper classes also enjoyed the opportunity to freely mix with those they never could meet socially in ordinary circumstances.

That accounted for the legion of prostitutes patrolling the grounds tonight in all their tawdry splendor. They weren’t the only ones looking for spontaneous employment: pickpockets were there, along with cutpurses. And there were those who were there in hopes of other, less obvious ways to make money from the event.

Footmen who had spent their quarterly wages on clothes were there, openly ogling unfortunate-looking wealthy young ladies famous for holding up the walls at Society dances. They were looking for a chance to pluck a wallflower off the wall, take a stroll down a dark lane with her, and then maybe for a ride up to Gretna Green and a walk down a different aisle. Fortune could smile on anyone here. Young, overly pomaded clerks were openly eyeing aging Society dowagers, and often being considered with interest in return.

Satisfying lust or making money wasn’t the only attraction. Saving it was, too. Young gentlemen who had gambled away their allowances sought shopgirls they might impress, and in return receive romance for nothing.

Families were there for a rare treat of an evening out. Vendors carrying merchandise on trays
hung around their necks offered sweets and meat pasties, hot chestnuts, and flavored ices for their pleasure.

“Hands on pockets, gentlemen,” Leland said. “As the crowd thickens, so do the pickpockets.”

“Yes,” Daisy said. “And many we knew in the old days, eh, Geoff?”

“Too many,” he said. “Poor fellows. It’s a chancy occupation. If they get a gold coin instead of a penny, they hang instead of cooling their heels in Newgate.”

“Some of them,” Daffyd commented. “Some are lucky, like me. They get a chance to tour Botany Bay.”

“At least we won’t see anyone we know from there tonight,” Daisy said. “That’s a world away.” She stopped walking abruptly, and shuddered, her hand flying to her mouth.

She’d seen a shape of a man in the crowd that reminded her of a nasty fellow she’d known in Port Jackson.

“What is it?” the earl asked. The viscount and Daffyd tensed and looked at the crowd.

“Lord!” she said, her hand on her rapidly beating heart. “I could swear I just saw Oscar Wilkins. Tanner’s friend!”

“It’s because of what we were talking about,” the earl said.

“Aye,” Daffyd said. “Couldn’t be Oscar. He wouldn’t have wasted a second before he said hello. You’re traveling in good company now,
Daisy, and he was ever one to seize the moment.”

“Well, he tried that already,” she said nervously. “Wanted to marry me when Tanner passed, could you believe? I said no and then had to shout it. He gave me the shakes just looking at him. I told him not to pester me again, and that I’d have the law on him if he came back to bother me. I could count on Lieutenant Lamb at the jail to chase Oscar if I asked him to, if only because he himself had a fancy for me.”

She saw Leland staring at her, bemused. Her chin went up. “There aren’t enough females in Port Jackson,” she explained. “A mare could get a marriage proposal if she wore a rose behind her ear.”

Leland looked at her, standing there, a slender figure glowing in the dim light, her skin pale as moonlight, her sunset hair sparked by torchlight. “My dear,” he said sincerely. “They could have had females from coast to coast standing three feet deep in rows, and still you’d have gathered proposals.”

Daisy heard the admiration in his voice, and her heart rose because of his praise. But she didn’t believe it, or him. “Maybe,” she said. “But remember I had money, too, after Tanner passed. That’s rarer than looks, wherever you are.”

“She doesn’t know,” the earl said with a touch of pride, “and won’t hear of it.”

“Know what?” Daisy asked suspiciously, afraid she was being mocked.

“You’re lovely,” the earl said, “and Lee here was only saying that.”

“That, and that you’re charming and clever, too,” Leland said. “A rare combination, in any country.”

Daisy tossed her head. Compliments annoyed as much as flattered her. They came too easily to most men to impress her. But Geoff seemed sincere. She wouldn’t have trusted what the viscount said if he’d told her her name was Daisy.

“Let’s move on,” Leland said in amusement, as though he knew what she was thinking. “Mrs. Tanner wouldn’t believe me if I told her she was standing on this path. And we must move smartly now because night’s falling, and the fireworks will soon be rising.”

Daisy put her hand on the earl’s arm and walked at his side again, just as she had in her dreams all the way to England. But now she couldn’t ignore the man who walked behind them. She wished she could. His presence addled her. When he was pleased, he was as easy to talk with as any female, and fun to be with. But now that she knew he liked women, he also made her feel like one—toward him. That alarmed her.

“Go toward that enormous tree straight ahead,” Leland said, “then down the lane to the left. It’s dimly lit and keeps turning, but keep on and we’ll be at the lake. The reflections in the water will make the fireworks look even more spectacular; the torchlight everywhere else will ruin the view. I know they don’t light up the sky, but they
diminish the effect. It won’t be as crowded there, either, if anyone’s there at all. The lane doesn’t look as though it goes anywhere, but it leads straight to the water’s edge.”

“Trust you,” the earl said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it, but of course you’re right. How do you know about it?”

“I live in London,” Leland said simply.

“Yes, but I can’t picture you roaming the parks at night. I thought you spent most of your time with the
ton,
at balls and the theater and such, or at private parties. How do you know so much about good places to see fireworks?”

“I don’t spend all my time at high-minded
or
expensive activities. Some of the
best
treats are the most common ones.”

The earl laughed. “Lord, talk about common! How do you make the most common things sound salacious?”

“It’s his talent,” Daffyd said. “Close your ears, Daisy. Pardon him, Mrs. Masters. I don’t know how he does it, either. But he can make a butterfly sound lewd if he tries.”

“Butterflies
are
salacious creatures,” Leland said mildly. “All that flitting from flower to flower, pouncing on a beauty, staying on long enough to sip sweet nectar, then flying away to a brighter blossom? Don’t get me started or I’ll make poor Mrs. Masters blush.”

Helena laughed. “I didn’t know you studied insects, my lord,” she said.

“He knows everything,” Daffyd said. “Or so he wants you to think.”

“Well, maybe he does. Would you look at this?” the earl exclaimed.

They’d come to the end of the lane and found themselves standing on a closely cropped lawn that looked out over the lake. The view across the water was clear, or would be if there was anything to see. Twilight had finally ceded to nightfall, and it was a dark, starry night. The moon was a sickle; the only light came from torches across the lake and their mirrored reflections dancing on the water. The only sounds were those of far-off music drifting on the air.

“Lee, my hat’s off to you,” the earl said with admiration. “This is the best place to see fireworks in all of London, I think.”

“No,” Leland said. “The view from the balcony in back of the palace is perfect, marred only by the host. It’s difficult to watch fireworks or anything else from there because Prinny hates attention being paid to anything but him. So. Everyone comfortable? There’s only one bench, and we’ll have to wipe off the dew to spare the ladies’ gowns, but at least no one is occupying it. Ladies?”

“I’d rather stand,” Daisy said. And then, as a comet suddenly launched from the earth across the lake and soared up to splinter into golden pieces high in the sky, she clapped her hands and cried, “Oh! Look!”

Soon, silver shells were bursting in air, and green ones, scarlet and blue, some thumping and pounding like artillery, some screaming as they ascended before they burst into sparks and flowers and sizzling spinning wheels high in the sky overhead. The night was shattered with explosions of light, and the dark lake below glittered, echoing the spectacle.

Daisy was thrilled. Her upturned face was rapt. At one point, each of the three men was looking at her when they noticed the others doing the same, and they couldn’t help exchanging small secret smiles of pleasure at her obvious enjoyment.

The last shell had exploded and its sparkling lights long since faded into the blue haze of gunpowder that hung in the air before anyone spoke again.

“That,”
Daisy said with enormous satisfaction, “was worth the price of admission.”

“It was free,” Leland reminded her.

“Not for me,” she said. “I had to travel across an ocean, and I’d sworn never to set foot on a ship again. But that made it worthwhile. Well. Thank you, gentlemen. When are they doing this again?”

“We’ll find out, and go,” the earl promised her, laughing.

“Good,” she said.

Leland raised an eyebrow, and then exchanged a look with Daffyd.

“I can’t,” Daffyd said, “I’m going home tomor
row. Fireworks are fine, but my Meg’s finer to my eyes. When you come visit us, Daisy, I’ll order up some for you. Until then, you’re on your own.”

“Not at all,” the earl exclaimed, “She’ll see more. Spectacles are common in the summer in London.”

“Oh,” Daffyd said. “So, you’re going to skip your usual trip to Egremont, stay on in London for the summer, and be her constant companion here, are you, Geoff?”

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