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Madeline halted just inside the door, her face as scarlet as her tunic. Sir William, still in his robes and wig, was ensconced behind a large desk with his bound leg propped on an ottoman, being read the riot act by a tall, dark figure looming over the desk.
"A lunatic?" she said. Sir William looked up, his accuser started and wheeled, and both men looked at her as if she had two heads.
"Good Lord. There she is now," the man said, tugging both his ire and his vest down and into place. "Madwoman Duncan. "
"That is Madeline Duncan, thank you," she said sharply. "You, I take it, are my proposed keeper."
"Not if I can bloody well help it," he declared. "I have better things to do with my time than prevent some idiot female from spending herself into oblivion." He glanced at Sir William, then turned a glare on her that would have sent a lesser woman into vapors. "If I could tolerate such duty, Uncle, I'd have taken a wife by now."
Madeline drew up her chin, studying him with the same fierce regard he aimed at her. He was an intimidating figuretall, dark in coloring, and dressed in a charcoal-gray suit that bespoke both money and the leisure to submit to a tailor's ministrations. Out of pure habit she took in the details of his garmentsthe broad padded shoulders of his coat, the closecut waist, the tight standing collar, and the tuck-front shirt that was so overstarched, it looked like paint on clapboard siding. He wore a black silk cravat with a diamond stickpin instead of a tie, his shoes were covered by dove-gray spats, and precisely one inch of Chinese silk showed above the breast pocket of his coat.
She mentally groaned. If Sir William had combed the city, he couldn't have found her an overseer less sympathetic to her causea fashion-conscious cynic. Pulling her gaze from him, she advanced on the desk, determined to hold her own.
"As you can see for yourself, Your Honor, this 'arrangement' you have proposed "
"Ordered," Sir William corrected her.
" ordered is unworkable. Can you in any way call this man objective? Or reasonable? He's already named me a lunatic, an incompetent, a wastrel, a bleeding heart, and a martyr."
"Ahhh"Sir William raised an excepting finger"but those are merely personal opinions. I have every confidence that his professional assessments will be considerably more objective."
"The hell they will," her overseer declared, folding his arms.
"The hell they won't," Sir William said with sudden furious calm. "You are a member of the bar, Lord Mandeville, and in court you are subject to my authority." His volume rose with each precisely chosen word. "You will indeed serve the court as overseer in this case...unless you would prefer to continue in your contempt and find yourself sitting in a cell in Scotland Yard."
"A cell does have a certain appeal, considering..." Lord Mandeville looked Madeline over with an expression men usually reserve for something they've stepped in while crossing a street. Then he turned to Sir William, meeting him eye to eye, glaring, testing the old justice's resolve and finding it as firm as Gibraltar. After a long, tense moment he struck his colors and surrendered. "Damned if you wouldn't do it."
"I most certainly would. And so, Lord Mandeville, shall you, since you seem to have nothing better to do with yourself." That settled, Sir William's mood brightened as he looked up at Madeline. "I am certain, Miss Duncan, that Lord Mandeville will exercise every bit of objectivity and restraint he possesses in overseeing your enterprise."
"What he will exercise, Your Honor, is his prejudice. To put him over my Ideal Garment Company is to condemn me to failure!"
"And to condemn me to three long, suffocating months of having to nursemaid a pigheaded female who insists on stirring up the social order and meddling in other people's lives," Mandeville said testily. "All because she has nothing worthwhile to do with herself."
"Nothing worthwhile?" She turned to face him and realized that stretching to her full height and rocking up onto her toes could not compensate for the difference in their sizes. She struck back with the only weapons at her command: words. "You don't see the value of freeing women's bodies from the tyranny of cruel fashions? You find nothing worthwhile in helping the working poor make a better life? You cannot appreciate the benefit of a workplace that enhances human dignity and fosters creativity?"
He paused a moment, staring down into her face, examining the stubborn set of her jaw and the determination blazing in her eyes.
"None whatsoever," he declared tautly. "Leave the poor alone, Miss Duncan. They suffer enough misery without having to put up with reformers and idealists. If females want to squeeze themselves in two with corsets and flaunt their bosoms in public, I can't see that it's any business of yours. In fact, the world could do with a bit more bosom and a good bit less high-minded moralizing. It's the idealists of this world who get mankind into trouble. Leading people to believe they are entitled to a better lot... promising impossible solutions"
"Impossible solutions?" she demanded, swallowing hard. "No help for humankind? Just gloom and despair and hopelessness all around?"
"I'd say that rather sums it up."
They had come virtually nose to nose, each refusing to give an inch in this ideological battle of wills. Her heart was pounding and blood was roaring in her head. But through that inner tempest she could feel heat radiating from him, engulfing her senses. Her head filled with the scents of starch, soap, and sandalwood carried on a distinctive current of musk that was foreign to her but that she sensed had to do with "male." His face was suddenly all she could see an intriguing blend of planes and angles too sharp and bold to be merely handsome. His eyes were a striking hazel-green, a snatch of autumn forestjade and amberchangeable. Her gaze traveled down the curve of his cheek to his mouth. She'd never seen lips like hisbroadly curved...sensuality inscribed in every contour...
Startling new sensations washed through her, heat as palpable as physical contact. She'd never imagined it was possible to feel a person without touching. But then, she'd never been this close to a man before
That thought booted her sharply back to reality. Color flooded her face as she scrambled to retrieve her self-possession. Wretched man, intimidating her with his size and upper-crust disdain. She couldn't let him get away with it.
"Spoken like a overindulged upper-class male who has never had to strive for anything," she declared, answering his condescension with a bit of her own. "How sad to have been handed everything from the moment you were born. Nothing to dream. Nothing to hope for. No ideals to struggle toward." She shook her head with suddenly genuine sympathy. "No wonder you see everything in shades of gloom."
Her words sank unexpectedly into the dark centers of those jaded autumn eyes, but she turned to Sir William before she could discern their full impact. "It would appear that Lord Mandeville, like my noble-spirited trustees, has a thing or two to learn about ideals. Well, where better to learn such lessons than at the Ideal Garment Company?" She leaned over the desk and lowered her voice. "I will open my factory and produce my garments and sell them at a profit, no matter what obstacles my trustees and my court-appointed 'nanny' erect in my path."
She caught a glimpse of Lord Mandeville's face as she turned to go. It was red and set, filled with patrician outrage. Her first impulse was a shameful surge of triumph. But by the time she reached the door, it struck her that she had just goaded the very man who held her fate in his hands.
Perhaps Lord Mandeville was right, she thought, as she charged down one hallway after another, searching for the blessed exit. Perhaps she was Madwoman Duncan after all.
Cole Mandeville stormed out of the Law Courts like a man possessed. And indeed he was possessedby two stunning blue orbs, an oval of luminous ivory, and a cloud of burnished silk, all wrapped around the steely core of a genuine do-or-die social reformer. Moments ago he had found himself standing flat-footed and speechless, staring down into Madeline Duncan's remarkable blue eyes and seeing into her blasted soul.
Her inner landscape seemed as pristine and unsullied as a newborn babe's. No avarice. No guilt. No sinkholes of self-interest. No gaping wounds to compensate for. It just wasn't possible. No human being could survive to her age without a few ravages to the soul, not even the most sheltered or privileged.
Not that she was particularly ancient, he thought furiously, hailing a hansom cab and feeling his vest riding up again as he raised his arm. Nor particularly hard on the eyes. It ought to be a law of nature that strange females had to look strange.
Giving his vest a savage jerk, he settled back into the worn leather seat of the two-seater cab and squinted at her memory, searching it for the flaws he knew must be therea hint of orange in that perfect chestnut, a taint of muddiness in that penetrating blue. Under such heated examination her image evaporated and he was left glowering at the horse's rump through the carriage glass and feeling very much like one himself.
He should have known his uncle was up to something, should have headed for the door the minute he spotted his former colleague at the counsel table. He had presumed the old boy intended to treat him to the spectacle of "Fartsworth" at work, expecting it would somehow lure him back into the profession. He never imagined the old goat had more direct designs on himinvolving him in the case itself.
And such a case. A damned infernal female with delusions of messiahship out to save the world from the twin evils of corsets and poverty in one fell swoop!
Corsets and poverty. The absurdity of it struck, and he began to laugh.