"What isit about? " Henry asked, frowning as he moved to standbehind herand peer downover her shoulder.
"I donot know.Lady Thurborne was talking about these three last night.Theyare all friends who gadabout together. Theyare alsosecond sons – they will notinherit and are in need of wives who are wealthy."
Relief flowingthrough her, Valoree chuckled. When everyone turned toher, she shrugged. "I would say they arehere to offer themselves up for marriage, " she proposed. "Meg’s littlechatwith the gossips lastnight must have worked."
Meglooked takenaback."Oh, my, ofcourse."Sheturned to No-Nose. "You shall haveto tell them thatLady Valoree is not available today, and to trybacktomorrow. We – "
"What? " every maninthe room, plus Valoree herself, cried out.
Megsighed unhappily, but her responseremained firm. "Just look at herface! Shecannot catch a husbandlooking so. Besides"
– hermouth tightened – "it is always best toplay hardto get."
Valoree made a face and shook herhead."Nonsense. They do not care what I looklike. This is business. No-Nose, show them tothesalonand tell them I shall bealong directly."
"Valoree, " Megprotested, but Valoree ignored her, her eyes narrowing onthehesitating No-Nose.
"You heard my order."
Acquiescing, the man turned and hurried out of the room.
Valoreeturnedto peer at Meg, whose upset was obvious. "This is business, Meg.I am notlooking for ahappy-ever-afterending.
You yourself should know how rare those are. I have seventy-five men and one woman under me, allin need of a home and safe harbor. I cannot afford dreams of a perfect husband or happy marriage.I mustbe satisfiedwith Ainsley, one brat, and a husband whobothers meas littleas possible." Turning herbackon the table, she left the room.
Daniel paused, the tune he had been whistlingdying abruptly as helookedabout. His gazefell on hismother, hanging halfway outof a carriage ontheroad besidehim, waving madly in case he should miss her. Smiling, hechangeddirection andmoved tothe carriage, taking her hand topress akiss to it."Good morning, Mother."
"You seemvery happy this morning."
When he didn’t add any furtherinformation, her smile faded.
"Wouldyou care for aride? "
"Nay. Thank you. I felt like walking and sent my driver on ahead." He gesturedup theroad where the Thurborne carriage waited.
"Oh. Well, where are you going? Andwhatisthat parcel? A gift? "
Daniel laughed outright at herblunt questions andshook his head. "You never change, doyou, Mother? "
"Nay, of course not. Why should I? " she asked with real surprise. Hesmiledwryly.
"As it happens, I am headedto see Lady Ainsley."
"Lady Ainsley? " Her eyebrows rose, her eyes filling with speculation."And your package? "
"Oh." He glanced down at it, suddenly embarrassed, and shrugged. "She had a reactionto hermakeup last night.I stopped in at the apothecary to see what theyhadtoofferas aid. They gave me this."
His mother barely glanced at the bundle, her next question alreadytumbling from her lips.’Theladylives around here? I had notrealized thattheAinsley’shad a townhouse in this area."
"Actually, I believe they are renting it for the season from Lord Beecham. Itis just…" He turned to gesture vaguely up the street, only topause and frown as hesaw acarriage stop before the town house in question. A gentleman stepped down – John Lambert, he recognized as the man conversed briefly with a servant in pink livery who rushedforward – then turned to give instructions to his driver before following theservant tothe door of the house. TheLambert carriage had barely pulledaway when another had pulled up in itsplace, disgorging Harry Gravenner.
The servant hurriedbackatonce, gesticulatinga bitexcitedly, then turned tobriefly glare at Daniel’scarriage.
"Hmmmm, " his lady mother supplied thoughtfully as she, too, watched Gravennersay somethingto hisdriver, then hurry up to the house. "It looks asifLadyAinsley ishaving many visitors this morning."
"Aye, " Daniel saidshortly, scowling as the Gravenner carriage drove away only to be replaced by another. "I have to .. ." he began distractedly, but didn’t finish the sentence. He turned away fromhis mother’s carriage andhurriedtoward hisdestination, his whole mood ruined.
Daniel had woken up ina finestate thismorning. He had not bothered returning to theparty the night before, but had gone to his club for a drinkand some peace. Ofcourse, allhe had done was think about Valoree: her spirit; her wit; her funny littlesmile whereone side curved up andtheothersort of bent downward as ifshe not only smiledrarely, but was afraid to indulge often lest she find her reason for doing so suddenly gone; the way she suddenly slipped into less than stellar speech when she was annoyed; her determination, her passion….
He had tasted her on his lips for hours after she had disappearedover the wall, and still could when he closed his eyes and concentrated. He couldfeel her armswrappedaroundhim, her fingers in his hair, her body moldedto his, could hear her gasps and sighs and groans and moansas he had lickedher eager flesh.
Dear God, justthe memory aroused him, and he had tortured himself with it for hours ashe hadpondered things – likethe fact that he had to marry and produce an heir to gain his grandmother’sinheritance. That she hadto marryand getwith child to gain herfamily estate. Thathecould helpgive her that baby. Over andover again. In bed. Outofbed. Against a garden wall.On astaircase. On his desktop. In one of the chairsbefore the fire in his room.
He was thinking with his nether regions and not his head, he knew, but damn, itmade his nether regionshappy. And really, when it cameright down to it, why not contemplate such things? He enjoyed this woman, albeit inan oddsort of way. He found her awkwardness in the ton endearing, her intelligence enchanting, and her independence refreshing. Of course, he would have tocurb some of that independence, butthe pleasure he anticipated in other areas seemed to make that a small consideration.
He just had toconvince her of the smallness ofthat. Which, he had thought last night, should notbe thatdifficulta chore. After all, she did have to marry to regain her home, and he was a handsomefellow – intelligent, soon to be wealthy, withland of his own, a title, and all those other things that a smart and ambitious young woman soughtin a husband.Just look at allthe girlsandtheir eager motherswho chased him from ball to ball.
They thought he was prime marriage material. And, he had assured himself, it would be little enoughtrouble to convince her of that, too. His certainty was what had had him whistling cheerfully ashe had madehis way here.
But that hadbeen whenhe hadthoughttherewould be littleif anycompetitionfor the woman.Now, ashe hurried alongthe street, watching yet anothergentleman leapfrom his carriage and strideupto the door to rap gaily, he couldn’thelp thinking that perhaps it would not goassmoothlyashe had hoped. And why the hellhadn’the ridden here in his carriage? He would have been here longago had he not decided to walk off some of his excitement along the way.
"ShallI move, my lord? " Daniel’s driver asked as he drew abreast of hiscarriage. "Aservant keeps insistingthatIshouldn’t park here, butI told himthat you said I should, so here I’d be waiting."
"Stayput, " Daniel ordered, turning to glare at thefellow now rushing towardhim from the townhouse.
"Ye cain’t be parkin’ yer hack here. Have yer driver move it.
We don’t need the road blocked out front here, " the harried-looking fellow announced, and Daniel raised a supercilious eyebrowatthefellow. The man’s pink livery was uglybut easy to digest, but hiding hissurpriseas he took inthe man’s damaged face took some doing.The butler had nonose! He wasalso missing severalteeth, had long hair, and wore a pistol sticking out of his breeches. Catching Daniel’s glance at the weapon, the fellow scowled and fastened his waistcoat. "Isaid – "
"I heard what you said, " Danielinterruptedcoldly. "I simply cannot believe your temerity in attempting to order me about."
The man rolled his eyes, not looking the least impressed. "Now seehere, them’s me orders. I’mto bemaking surethatyou fellers ain’t clutteringup theroad with yercarriages.Ifall of ye was to be parkingyerhacksouthere, no one would be able to get by andtheca – er – Lady Valoree, she was sayingshe didn’t want no trouble with the neighbors, so we’re to seethecarriages move along once their passengersis out of’em."
"By all means, do so with the other ‘guests.’ However, my carriageshallwait right here for me, "Danielannounced firmly, bringing ascowl to theservant’s face. Theman lookedabout to argue the point, but another carriage pulled up just then, distracting him.
"Oh, now, ye can’t be parkin’ yer hack here!" he shouted, movingon to the new carriageina fury. Daniel glanced back curiously to see Beecham stepping out.Blinkingin surprise atthe surly servant, the nobleman directed something quickly to his driver, and the hack pulled away, leavinghim to hurry up the walk.
"Thurborne, " he said in greeting, glancing over his shoulder toward the fellow with no nose. "I really must talk to Lady Ainsley about her servants. They are quite – "
"Impertinent? Loud? Disreputable-looking? "
"All of those, " Beechamagreed as they paused on the steps to the town house andDaniel rapped on the door with his cane.
If the first servant had seemed somewhat disreputable, the servantwhoopened thedoorwas downright scary. He filledthe door like death, aswide asand even taller than, it was, having to stoop tostand in itsframe, completely blocking any passage. His skinwas a deep, rich mahogany, his head bald, and his teeth shone as he smiled a white smile that was anything but friendly.
Daniel blinked at the deep growl and handed hiscard over, silently eyeing theman’s thickarms as he took bothit andthe card Beecham supplied. Barely glancing at them, the fellow steppedback forthe two nobles to enter, then tossed their cards on atray, where a smallmountain ofothers resided. He gestured towarda door on their left, behind which the sound of voices could be heard. It seemedopening the door andannouncing them was not part of his duties.
Amused, Daniel started for the door, only to pause andglance back when Beecham asked curiously, "What did you want our cards for if you had no intention of presenting them to your mistress orannouncing us? "
In the process of closingthe door, the giant paused to eye young Beechamnarrowly."So’s I’ll know where to deliveryeif yecausetrouble and I have to knock yeout."
Even Daniel blinked at that announcement, hismouth drawing into an astounded smile. "And how will youknow which card belongs to whom? " he asked smugly. "You have quite a collection there, myman."
The fellow’s expression didn’t change at all; hemerely said, "I’ll know."
And really, Daniel suddenlysuspected the man would. Shaking his head, he turned backto the door and opened it. Having done so, he frozeinshock.The room was overflowing withmen. There were at least thirtyof them in thesmall salon – and every single oneof themwas trying to be heard overtheothers.
"My God, "Beechambreathed, moving to his side to surveythe room. Daniel glanced at himgrimly.
"Aye. It wouldseem herplan worked, " hemurmured, not at all pleased by this turnof events.
"What plan? " Beechamaskedfaintly, his glazed eyes shifting from one suitor to another. Knowing the man’s penchant for keepingaccounts, Daniel surmised he was counting them.
"Herplan to spread thewordthatshe is wealthyand desperate for ahusband, " Daniel explained patiently. "She washoping that it would bring the suitors scurrying. It appears that her plan worked. Everygold-digger inLondon has shown up." Hemade a disgusted face, thennoticed Beecham’s alarmed expression. "Is that not why youarehere? "
"Nay!" Beecham criedat once. "At least – Well, the money isn’t really important.I mean, money is always nice, but Lady Ainsley is … She’s . .." His voice trailed away helplessly, his expression slightly moony.
"Aye. She is, "Daniel agreed darkly. Stepping into theroom, he madehisway throughthe crowdof male bodies toward where they seemed most dense. That was wherehe wouldfind Valoree, no doubt.At the centerof the hive.
"Your hairis like fire."
"Your beautyis incomparable."
"Your lipsarelike little rosebuds."
"You are as sweetas honey."
"Oh, your voice ismusic itself."
Valoree sighed inwardly and tapped her hand impatiently against her side as compliment after complimentwas bestowed by the men crowding around her. It was all a bunchofbunk, of course.Herface was red and blistered, her eyes bloodshot, and her hair was lying flatandunfancy uponherback because she had refused to wear her damn wig.She had left it inThurborne’s garden, anyway. In short, she looked likehell.Andshe knew she looked like hell. Nor was she terribly impressed with all the flowery phrases with which suitors were showering her.
It seemed her plan had worked too well. Thesalon was filling up by the moment with hopeful would-behusbands.Itwas nice tohavea choice, but really, how was she to choose one fromthis mob?
A firm grasp onher armmade her glance aroundto see Daniel.
"Good morning, "he mouthed with a wink, then turned and started away, dragging her firmly behind him. Her crowd of gentleman callers immediately began to follow, their silly compliments undiminished as they trailedher to the door of the salon. Stepping into the hall, Danielpulled herout, then slammed the door in their faces.
"Good day, " he murmured, smiling pleasantly asheturned to face her, leaninghis weight determinedly againstthedoor and holding the knob firmly. He duga bedraggledand knottedwig from his pocketwith hisotherhand. "Youleft this behind last night."
Valoree couldn’t help it;she burst outlaughing as she tookthe wig, then shookher head and sighed. "Good day to you, too.
Thank youfor getting meout of there."
"Yes. Itseemsyour plan worked."