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Vexing the Viscount
By Emily Bryan
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Hmm! I wonder if that's life-size," Miss Daisy Drake murmured. She leaned down to inspect the ancient lamp on display in the corridor outside the Society of Antiquaries lecture hall. Talking to herself was a bad habit, she knew, but since none of her friends shared her interest in antiquities, she often found herself without companions on this sort of outing.
"Of course, it would be on the most inaccessible shelf in the display case." Solely to vex her, she suspected. Daisy scrunched down to get a better look at it.
The clay lamp was only about four inches long, but in other respects, so far as Daisy knew, was perfectly lifelike. The terra-cotta scrotum served admirably for an oil cruse, but even though she knew the ancients decorated their homes with such unseemly things, she still wondered about how the lamp worked. She opened her small valise and drew out paper, quill and inkpot in order to take a few notes. "Where does the flame come out?"
"Right where one would expect," a masculine voice sounded near her.
Daisy's spine snapped suddenly upright. The crown of her head clipped the man's chin with a thwack and she bit her tongue.
"Jupiter!" One of her hands flew to her throbbing mouth, the other to the top of her head, where her cunning little hat was smashed beyond recognition. Her sheaf of papers fluttered to the polished oak floor like maple leaves. The small inkwell flew into the air and landed squarely on the white lawn of the man's shirtfront.
"Oh, I'm so dreadfully sorry." Daisy dabbed at the stain with her hankie and succeeded only in spreading it down his waistcoat. A black blob dribbled onto his fawn-colored breeches. She decided not to chase that stain with her handkerchief.
At least, thank heaven, plastering the man with ink covered her unmaidenly interest in that lewd little lamp. It was clearly a mistake to come to the museum today, but the topic under discussion at the Society of Antiquaries was the possible discovery of an ancient Roman treasure. The lure of an adventure drew her like a lemming to the sea.
"How clumsy of me!" She made the additional mistake of looking up at the man. Her mouth gaped like a cod's.
Lucian, she almost said aloud. When she saw no trace of recognition in his dark eyes, she drew her lips closed by sheer strength of will.
He'd grown into himself since she'd seen him last. His fine, straight nose was no longer out of proportion to the rest of his face. As he rubbed his square jaw, Daisy saw that the little scar on his chin was still visible, a neat triangle of pale, smooth skin. She'd recognize that anywhere.
After all, she'd given it to him.
His dark hair was hidden beneath a dandy's wig. Oh, she hoped to heaven he hadn't taken to shaving his head, as some did. Daisy's uncle Gabriel was a dogged opponent of the fashion. Said it was nothing but French foppery. Since Uncle Gabriel's opinions were only slightly less authoritative than a papal bull, his aversion to wigs had rubbed off. Besides, hiding a head of hair like Lucian's was a sacrilege. Or ought to be.
An ebony wisp escaped near his left ear.
Good. Daisy breathed a sigh of relief. His dark mane was one of Lucian's finest points, after all. Not that there weren't plenty of others.
His lips twitched in a half smile.
"An interesting piece, isn't it?" He was still the same old Lucian. Still direct, even at the expense of propriety. He wasn't going to play the gentleman and pretend he hadn't caught her ogling that Roman phallus.
"Indeed." She met his gaze, determined to make him understand that her interest was purely intellectual. "Obviously a cultic object of some sort. It is certainly a curiosity."
"It is gratifying to find a young lady who is ... curious."
Daisy lifted her chin in what she hoped was a confident manner. "Of course I'm curious. Such an item makes one wonder what the people who used it were like."
"I suspect the ancients were more like us than we want to admit. People have been born into this world with the same wants and needs since Eden. Though I'll grant you our taste in home decoration has changed," he said with a laugh.
"Actually, I read a treatise only last week on the new fashion of tassels. The writer felt they were merely phallic symbols in subtle form."
"Hmph. I shall never look at a tassel the same way again."
His eyes narrowed in speculation. Daisy hoped he might show some sign of remembering her, but it had been more than a decade since they'd met. She'd been a flat-chested ten-year-old, and he'd been a haughty woman hater of twelve. With soulful eyes and a blinding smile.
Now he turned that charming smile on her without a hint of recognition in his intense gaze. "You must possess an unusual library."
The library Daisy frequented most often belonged to Isabella Haversham, her great-aunt. Isabella had once been a famous courtesan. But even now that she was a married lady-the wife of an earl, no less-she still entertained philosophers and artists and "freethinkers" with regularity. Lady Wexford might be painted with scandal's brush, but an evening in her company was far more diverting than squirming through the tortured clavichord recitals that took place in other parlors around the city.
Daisy wangled an invitation to Isabella's soirees as often as she could. For that reason, as well as her great-aunt's library, Daisy suspected her education was considerably broader than that of most young women her age.
"Innocence and ignorance need not forever clasp hands," Isabella was fond of saying.
Daisy looked pointedly back at the lamp. There was no denying she'd been studying it before. She might as well put a bold face on it.
"I was wondering if there is any kind of mark on that lamp," Daisy said. "One that might indicate who the maker was."
"He left no mark," Lucian said.
"He? So you believe a man fashioned it?"
"Men were the artisans in antiquity," he said with confidence.
"Hmm. That surprises me," she said with wide eyes. "I can't imagine a man wanting to set one of those alight."
Lucian coughed out a laugh. "But you can see where a woman might have reason."
"Certainly. Male domination of nearly every field of endeavor springs to mind." As well as possession of the memory of a gnat, she added silently. "But the lamp poses a host of questions."
"Ah, yes, and you raised an intriguing one." One of his dark brows arched, a reminder that he'd overheard her. "I'd be happy to help you discover the answer."
Was he suggesting something improper? If he was, it would serve him right if she gave him another scar.
"You owe me no further assistance. Not after I ruined your shirt. And your waistcoat. And your ..." She shouldn't have allowed her gaze to travel the ink's path down the front of his breeches. For a moment, she imagined an appendage shaped like the lamp affixed to his groin, and felt her cheeks heat. To cover her embarrassment, she sank to the floor to retrieve her scattered notes.
"Think nothing of it." His voice was no longer the adolescent squeak she remembered. "I should be more careful where I put my jaw. I do hope you have not suffered an injury to your head."
The way his deep baritone rumbled through her, the fact that she even had a head temporarily escaped her notice.
"Please allow me." Lucian set down the valise he'd been carrying and knelt beside her. He helped her reassemble her pages. Then he offered his hand to help her up, and she took it.
Had someone loosed a jar of june bugs in her belly?
"Thank you, my lord," she murmured, for lord he was.
Lucian Ignacio de Castenello Beaumont. Son and heir of Ellery Beaumont, Earl of Montford. Daisy assumed Lucian was now styling himself Viscount Rutland, one of his father's lesser titles, since the earl was still very much alive.
But Daisy remembered Lucian as Iggy.
His ears had turned an alarming shade of red when she called him that. "Iggy" was not dignified, he'd complained. As if a skinny, dirty-kneed twelve-year-old were capable of anything remotely like dignity.
But Lucian was no longer twelve. He was a man. And the last time Daisy heard his name bandied about in polite society, the sober matron doing the talking lowered her voice, but the words reclusive rake and wastrel were unmistakably used.
Neither of which did anything to slow her racing heart, Daisy admitted with a sigh.
She accepted the stack of papers from him. "There's no salvaging your ensemble, I fear. Please permit me to have a new suit of clothing made for you."
She could afford to be generous. After all, she'd discovered the family fortune beneath the stones of Dragon Caern Castle just when other members of the nobility were losing theirs in the South Sea stock swindle.
"I wouldn't hear of it," he assured her smoothly, though she knew Lucian's father had invested heavily in the failed company. Perhaps his mother's family was still solvent. She'd been a noblewoman in her homeland. Nearly all the vestiges of Lucian's Italian accent were now gone. Daisy thought that a terrible shame.
"I've been meaning to retire this suit in any case," he informed her. "The style is tres passé, n'est-ce pas?"
That would be a pity, since the cut of that green frock coat does wonderful things for his shoulders, and as for those bree-Daisy caught herself before her thoughts completely ran away with her, but lost her fight with the urge to flick her gaze to where his breeches molded to his thighs.
He caught the direction of her gaze and an amused grin tilted his lips. "My! You are a keen observer, aren't you?"
"Forgive me. Ruining your suit has upset me," she said, her cheeks flaming. "I'm acting like some pudding-headed debutante." Instead she was firmly on-the-shelf spinster of one and twenty.
"If you were a debutante, I'd have remembered you," he said.
Daisy doubted it. Especially since he showed no signs of recognizing her yet. Surely she bore some resemblance to the young girl who'd followed him about like a puppy so many years ago. His family had spent only a week in residence at Dragon Caern, but it had been the most frustrating, most splendid, most memorable week of her young life.
"However, if you want my advice," he continued, "your chances of remaining unmarried will decrease if you try not to douse every man you meet with ink."
"Perhaps remaining unmarried is my choice." She frowned until she noticed the way he flashed his teeth at her, clearly teasing. Lucian was the sort of man a woman might forgive anything so long as he smiled at her.
Daisy bit her lip to keep from babbling further. She sidled away from the case where the phallic lamp was on display.
Lucian looked around the nearly deserted exhibit hall. "It seems there is no way for us to be properly introduced, but perhaps you will allow me the honor of giving you my name."
Final proof that he truly didn't recognize her. Her belly spiraled downward in disappointment.
How was it possible that she could carry his image in her head for all these years while he completely forgot that Daisy Elizabeth Drake even existed? Bristling with indignation, she took another step backward to put more distance between them.
Before she could remind him that he should already know her name (and quite well, thank you very much!), the door behind her swung open and whacked her soundly on the bottom. Then the door slammed shut as whoever opened it realized he'd hit something. Daisy stumbled forward and Lucian caught her in his arms.
She was pressed tight against him, suddenly engulfed in his masculine scent, a clean whiff of sandalwood and soap. Beneath her splayed fingers, the musculature in his chest was rock hard. Her breath caught in her throat.
"Are you injured, miss?" Lucian asked.
"Only my pride." Daisy pushed against him as a signal he should release her. She wasn't about to admit that her derriere throbbed.
"No, I fear we have another casualty," he said, not loosening his hold on her a bit.
Daisy followed his gaze to her décolletage, where some of the ink from his shirt and waistcoat had been transferred. Part of the stain marred her pale blue stomacher and part darkened the mound of her breast that rose above it.
"Pity. An alabaster bosom should never wear black." He drew a fingertip along the froth of lace at the neckline she'd always thought of as modest, but never would again. "Alas, I forgot my handkerchief this morning or I should return the favor and try to wipe it off."
The thought of his hand on her skin with only a thin layer of cloth between them made her belly quiver.
The door creaked behind her and eased open a tentative few inches. A monocled gentleman peeked in and waved Lucian over with urgency.
"There you are, Rutland. We've been waiting for you."
Daisy started and jumped away from Lucian. She recognized the gentleman as Sir Alistair Fitzhugh, head of the Society of Antiquaries. She'd petitioned for admission several times, only to have Sir Alistair blackball her membership on account of her gender. The man cast a quick dismissive gaze over her and turned back to Lord Rutland.
A baron's niece counted for very little when measured against a viscount, she supposed.
Fitzhugh's monocle popped out and dangled from its silver chain as he eyed the large, oddly shaped ink stain on Lucian's clothing. "Good God, man, what's happened to you?"
"It was-" Daisy began.
"My fault entirely," Lucian finished for her. "I will be in directly, Fitzhugh."
Lucian turned back to Daisy. "Perhaps once I've delivered my presentation-"
"Hold a moment," she interrupted, stunned. She'd expected an Oxford-don type would lead the discussion. "You're the speaker?"
He nodded with a wry grin. "When I'm allowed to be."
She covered her mouth with her fingertips. When had Lucian become an expert in Roman antiquities? Or, more specifically, lost Roman treasure.
"As I was saying, I hope we may continue our discussion at a later time. I'd enjoy learning what else such a charming young lady finds ... curious in these dry halls." He retrieved his valise, made an elegant leg and shot her a wicked grin. "And for your information, the answer is no."
"No?" Her brows nearly met in a puzzled frown.
"It's not life-size."
Excerpted from Vexing the Viscount by Emily Bryan Copyright © 2009 by Diana Groe. Excerpted by permission.
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