‘Too well, "she admitted sardonically asthe doorrattledwith the combined force of those who sought to openit.
"Well, " he continued cheerfully, "I could rid you of this problemshould you butreconsider marrying me."
Valoree smiled slightlyathis words, but shook her head. "I never reconsider adecision. That wouldmake me wishy-washy.
Oncea decision hasbeenreached, good or bad, it stands."
Valoree shrugged, vaguely annoyed but unswayed. She had spentmostof her lifeon a ship, and the last five years as its captain. She wasn’tgoing to allow one man’s opinion to change herway ofdoing things.
"Whatif there was some bit ofinformation that you did not know before you made your decision? " he suggested. "Surely, should you learn something new, and of import, you would reconsider – "
"That’s not reconsidering; that isa new consideration entirely, "
she toldhim calmly.
"But that’s the same thing!"
"What is twoplus two, my lord? "
He blinked at the non sequitur. "Four, but – "
"And what is two plus twotake awayone? "
‘That would bethree, but – "
"Exactly.Yousee.Two separate mathematical problems. With two different answers, despite both havinga similar portion."
He staredat her blankly fora moment; then admirationslowly began to shift over his face. "Why, you clever little witch. I believe you couldtwistsomeintellectuals intoknots with your thoughts. Are you always sological? "
Valoree blinked at the question. No one hadevercalled her logical before. A knock atthe front door savedher from having to comeup withan answer. Turning, she watched as Bull moved toward the door, positive it would be more damn suitors like thosetheyhad trappedinthesalon.
"Oh, my!" a female voice cried out in surprise, but Bull blocked Valoree’s view of whoit was."Oh, hello, um … Iamhere tosee Lady – "
Valoree blinked atDaniel’sirritatedvoice, thenleft him alone to guard the salon door – which no longer shook, the suitors apparently resigned to wait in peace. She moved curiously to Bull’s side to seethat it was indeed Lady Thurborne.
"Oh, Lady Ainsley, " Daniel’smother exclaimedwith relief as Valoree moved into view. "For a moment, I feared I had the wrong town house. Danieljustwaved downthe street. He did not pointout exactly which one it wasand – Oh, hello, Daniel, " she said, easing cautiously pastBull and into the entry.
Her son did not look impressed, Valoree noted with amusement, taking in his expression. "What are youdoing here, Mother? "he asked.
"Oh, well, I thoughtmayhap Icould help."
"Help? " Valoree asked withamazement. Surely hismother had notcome to plead his case asto whyshe should marry her son?
"Yes, dear." Lady Thurborne whirled toward her, smiling brightly. "Daniel mentioned that he had stopped at the apothecary’s to collectsomesalve for your poor face because you had reacted to – Oh, my!" sheinterrupted herself inhorror.
Bull had swungthe door wider for a nervous young maid to scamper insideand sunlightspilled over Valoree, illuminating her ravaged face.
"Oh, you poor, dear thing, you!"she cried, hurryingforward to catch Valoree’s facegently in herhands, turning it this way and thatto examinethe blisteredskin. "Oh, Daniel. You didnottell me it wasso bad!That nonsenseyou got from the apothecary will beuseless."
Then she turned to scowl ather son."Didyou know aboutthis last night? " she asked sharply, and read the answer in his expression. "Well, you shouldhave told me about this. She needs Grandmama’sremedy forcertain."Sighing, she turned back to stareat Valoree one more time, then released Valoree’s face and shook her head."Itis agood thing I stoppedbyto see what was about. Now, whereis your kitchen? "
"Kitchen? " Valoree repeated blankly. Her mind was still taken with the factthat Danielhad stopped atanapothecary’s to pick up some salvefor her "poor face." For some reason, that fact made her feel all warm and squishy inside. It wasafeeling she wasn’t sure sheliked, but was farbetter thanthe irritation allthe false compliments her suitorshad been raining on herhad caused.
"Yes, dear. Bessy will need to mix up Grandmama’s remedy."
Shefrowned now. "I wish I hadknown about this sooner.I would have brought the ingredients, but hopefully yourcookwillhave them on hand. Where is the kitchen? "
"Uh … well…" Valoree glanced uncertainly down the hall.
Petey hated anyone in his kitchen. At sea or on land, it wasthe one thingon whichhe tended tostand firm. Noone wasto mess about in hisgalley. Not even her.
‘Thisway, isit? " Lady Thurborneasked, movingdeterminedly inthe direction Valoreehad involuntarily glanced. "Comealong, Bessy, " shesaidto her maid. "There is notimeto waste."
"Damn, " Valoree said underher breathas the woman sailed down the hall andthroughthekitchen door.
"You might like to call your aunt in on this one, " Daniel suggestedwith a repressedsmile, andValoreeglanced to where hestillstood with his back tothesalondoor.
"My aunt? "
"Aye, " he said with something that seemed oddly like sympathy. "And your uncle, too. My mother will march right overyou if youdo not have plenty of support."
Valoree blinked in amazement at the claim, then shook her head. She was the captain ofa pirateship! The dayshe could not handle one little old lady… Her thoughtsdied as a clatter inthe kitchen was followedby some vigorous cursing. Frowning, she started up the hall, but paused halfway there when Lady Thurborne stuck herheadout. The woman gave a brilliant smile.
"Ifound your cook, " she sangout cheerfully, not even wincing ata secondround of oathsbehindher."He is the temperamental sort, I see. So is mine.All artistsare. Not to worrythough; we shall getalong famously."
Her headdisappeared back into thekitchen, there was a great racket, and then there was complete silence. Valoree hesitated, unsure at that point whether she really wished to know what was going on. Danielspokefrom behind her. "Your aunt wasnotin there, was she? "
Valoree glanced over to see him nod toward the door he guarded, but shookher head. "Nay, she wentup to herroom."
"Ah. Good, she will be well rested and in fighting form.
Perhaps youshould send someone upto gether."
Valoree paused, then sighed and nodded to Bull. The giant left his post by the door and started up the stairs at once. "Find Henry, too, "shecalled after him, then walked toward thesalon door Daniel was guarding. "I suppose I had best tend to my suitorswhile Iam at it."
"Is that what you call them? " Daniel asked a bit peevishly, straightening away from the door. "I would havethought greedy gold-diggers to bea better description."
"Oh, sod off, Thurborne, " she muttered. With that, she reached for the doorknob andtugged the dooropen.
"Marryme andyou can simply tell them all to just goaway."
Valoree grimaced at the wordsDaniel whispered inher ear and sighed. She supposed he had been encouragedby her pauseat openingthe door. It wasn’t that she didn’t know what to do. It was that shecouldn’t believe how many men had responded to the gossip. There wereatleast thirtyof them, and of all ages, shapes, and sizes. If She hadrealizedhow easy getting them to her door would be, she neverwouldhave bothered withallthe nonsenseof dresses and makeupandsocials. She simply would have sent Henry and Meg tohavea chatwiththeappropriate parties, then sat backto await the arrival of every single malein London who wished to marry money. But now they were here, andshe had toweed through them and decide which was the weakest, and in the most desperatestraits. She would marry him.
IgnoringDaniel, she straightened her shoulders and addressed the waiting mob of men."Everysingle one of you is heretoday because you heard the rumors yesterday about my being wealthy and needing to marry to claim my childhood home, Ainsley Castle."
She hadbarely finished making that statement when the men rumbled to life with denials.Oh, no theyweren’t there because she needed tomarry!They werethere tobaskin her beauty.To wallow in her wit. To enjoyher intellect.
Valoreerolledhereyes. "You can stop your nonsense now, "
she interrupted. "You canall seethatI suffered a reaction tothe foundation and fucus I wore to yesterday’s ball. There is no beautyto bask in. AndIam not feeling particularly wittytoday either.Soif you aren’there with an interest in marryingme for my wealth, then you can leave now."
There was an uncomfortable silence as the men peered anywhere but at her. Valoree supposed thesudden shifting and nervous silence were because thelords of the tonwere not used to suchopen honestyin regards tomotive. She supposed they all wouldhavebeenmore comfortable to play a game where she pretended they all were ensnaredby her femininewiles, andthey pretended she found them the most interesting creatures alive.
Well, pirates did not goin much for lies! Their motives were wealthandthey madeno bonesaboutit. That was the society she’d learned to respect. She had neither the patience nor the intent to lie her way through several weeks of courting, smothered by smarmy compliments thatweren’tsincere.
Despite their discomfort, she noted, not a single man leftthe room. Valoreenodded her headsolemnly, then said, "To inherit, my husband has to be a member of the nobility. If youare not such, you mayas wellleave now."
There was a murmurof voices and a general shiftingofbodies as first one man, then two others, made their way out of the crowd and moved past where she and Daniel stood by the door.
Well, she thought, three down and twenty-seven to go. "Imust also have birthed a child, or be carrying onebymy twenty-fifth birthday – which is a little less than nine months away, " she continued. There was dead silence in answer. Valoree frowned slightly.She hadhoped at least another oneor two men might be eliminated by that.They couldn’t all be thrilled tobed her. Just as she would have opened her mouth to speak again, Daniel startled herby interrupting.
"LadyAinsley’s uncle will, of course, have you all thoroughly investigatedto discoverwhetheryou are truly members of the nobility… Also, that you have not suffered any injury or illness that mightraise some doubt as to your ability to perform the necessarytask of providing an heir, " he announced pleasantly. A sudden ripple of alarm wound through the group. Valoree watched inamazement as more than half her remaining suitors made a quick exodus.
"All of them could not be unable to produce heirs, " she murmuredto Daniel in disbelief. He shookhis head slightly.
"Nay. Doubtless some of them werenot really nobility, but had hoped to be ableto convinceyou theywere long enough to trick you intomarriage. Then, too, someof themmay have skeletons in their closets that they do notwish uncovered byyour uncle’s ‘investigations.’ "
Valoree nodded. That madesense. Notthat she hada problem with skeletons inone’scloset. She had seventy-five of her own, every oneof themaliveand breathing and eagerto seeher bound in marriage. Resigned, she eyed the twelve menleft to choose from. Then, sensing a presencebehind her, she glancedover her shoulderto see Henry standing there, his eyebrows raisedasthe dozen men left.
"Bullsaidyou were wantin’ me, " he explained, then gestured to the room at large. "What happened to the restof ’em? "
"We weeded out the ones who weren’t nobles, orable to father anheir, " Valoreeanswered, perusing the suitors that were left.As she turned back, she thought she saw. an odd glint in her quartermaster’s eye, but he was peering at Daniel.
"What are ye going to do with the rest of ’em? " Thurborne asked.
Valoree was silentfor a moment, then turned toglance athim, aslight grimace on her face. "I suppose Ishall have to spend some time with each to seewhichone would suit best."
"Or you could saveyourself the trouble and marry me, " Daniel put in.Valoree saw Henry regard the man again, andshe quickly moved to squash that notion.
"I already know you would not suit. She turned to Henry.
"Take them allto the dining room. Schedule visits witheach of them sothat I can see what theyare about, Henry. Ifwe work this right, we couldbe out ofthisstinking town by week’s end."
Nodding, her right-hand man facedthe men. "All right. We’re moving into the diningroom now. I’ll get ye names and schedule each ofye with an appointment to return, then ye can leave.
Valoree and Daniel stood asideas the crowd vacatedher salon, each man pausing to give her smarmy smile, andkiss her hand with varying degreesof a passion. Each assured her they could not wait fortheir visitation.Shaking her head as shewatchedthe last man troop out thedoor, Valoree released abreath with what she told herself was satisfaction.There was not a single real man among the bunch. This endeavorto find aneasily subdued mate shouldbe quickly successful.The feat She had thought impossible was suddenly beginning to look simple.
"Aloneat last, " Daniel murmured, pressing a kisstoherneck that madeher jump in surpriseand wheelon him.
"That’ll be enough o’ that, it will, " she snapped, quashingthe shivers the briefcaresshadsentthrough her. There wasatime for business anda time for fun afterall – andshe was still on business time.
"Your language is slipping, " he said with a wicked smile, insinuating his arms around her waist and pulling her stiff body against his own. "I notice it tends to turn into something resembling the speech of a dock-side doxy when you get excited." His hands slid down her backtoclasp her bottom and urge her tighter against him so that their lower bodies were molded together. "Oddly enough, I findthatexcites me.Can you tell how much? "
"You – "
Releasing Valoree at once, Thurborneleapedguiltily awayat his mother’s scandalized roar from the doorway, then caught himself. Scowling at her, hequickly affecteda slightly wry smile.
"Done playing in the kitchen, Mother? "
Beforeshe could respond, Meg appearedbehind her. "Why, Lady Thurborne! What a pleasant surprise. Zachariah said we hadcompany, but did not mention who itwas."