Valoree was puzzling over the name Zachariah when she caught a glimpse of Bull moving across the hall, his face contorted with mingled embarrassment and displeasure.
Zachariah? She hadn’t even knownthat that was his realname.
God’steeth! It was no wonder he preferred to be called Bull.
"Do come in andsitdown." MegurgedDaniel’s mother and her maid into theroom and toward the chairsandsettee. "Valoree, dear, willyou ask one of the mentohave Peter bring ussome refreshments? Tea, and perhaps some biscuits or scones, " she added pointedly.
Just in case I thoughtrumand a sideof beefwould do, Valoree supposed with vague amusement, turning to walk out into the hall. When shedid, shenoticed Bull was missingfrom his spot by the door. Shesupposed hewas down inthe dining salon with Henry, sizing up her suitors. No doubt all the men were. It affectedthem, after all. No doubt the bloody bastards thought they could vote on which one she married, too. Well, letthem.
Shedidn’t care what they did at this point. In fact, she didn’t reallymuchcarewhich shemarried.Although, had her lifebeen anormal one, and her needs notso specific, She had toadmit that Thurbornewouldhave been an interesting option. Hereminded her very much of her dearly departed brother, at least in his determination and strength.Aye, she liked Thurborne.
But she had beenin chargeof her crew for toolongto give up her power to another and play the submissive, dutiful wife. Not that she even could haveif she had wanted to.She had no skills inthatarea – didn’t know the first thing aboutit, and didn’t want to. Being a ladyandwife seemedincredibly boring next to her yearsof adventureon the high seas.
"Ah, Lady Ainsley."
Drawn from her thoughts, Valoree looked blanklyat the fellow she had nearlywalked into, recognizinghim as oneof her suitors.
He wasa hardone toforget. The man’s name was Alcock, which was fitting sincehe dressed likea peacock. He was also short with ascrawny little neck and shoulders, and a rather wide rump.
Amost unfortunate physique, she decided as he drew her hand into his and lifted it to press tiny butterfly kisses across her knuckles.
Withhis lipsstill pressedtoherhand, he peeredup atherin what she considered a rheumy manner. ‘Truly you are as lovely as a freshsummer day. How itpainsme tosay adieu."
"Aye.Me, too, " Valoreelied, snatching her hand back. Then, using it to catch hiselbow, she propelledhim firmlytowardthe door."Nowwatch your step on the way out, " she sang outwith feigned good cheer. Pulling thedoor open, she gave him a shove that sent him stumblingout intothestreet, and sheclosed the door behindhim with a snap.
"Lovely asafresh summer day indeed, " shemuttered with a scowl, fullyawareshe looked anything but lovely. Unless one likedrashes . ..
"Henry!" she yelled, starting up the hall, then paused whenthe door to the dining salon opened. Henry’sheadpopped out. "Cross Alcock off the list.He’stoo damn prissy formy liking. Andhave Peteyfetch some refreshments;we have company."
Henry’s gazeshotaroundthe entry questioningly and Valoree sighed."Lady Thurborne has joinedher soninthesalon."
Nodding, Henry turned backto the room, addressing someone.
A momentlater One-Eye slid out andmoved into thekitchen to pass her message on toPetey.
Leavingthem to it, Valoree returnedto the salon in time to hear Megsaying in apained voice, "I fearher uncle was not very strict with her over the years. Hehad no ideawhat todo withthe poorgirl, and it hasbeenup to me to tryto instill alifetime’s lessonsin manners inavery short period.She is coming along nicely, of course, but still occasionally forgets somelittlething.
Suchas that ladies never raise their voices, " she added, turning to eye her"niece" with some annoyance.
"She isdoing fine."
Valoree’s answering glare at Meg faded abruptly, replacedwith amazement as Lady Thurborne championed her."She isa lovely girl, and with perfectly lovely manners. I must confess that I myself sometimesforget andcallout to, or for, my servants more loudly than is thought proper."
Meg smiled doubtfully atthat, butValoree choseto ignore her.
Lady Thurborne continued, "Daniel mentionedtome thatLady Valoree had suffered a reaction toher makeup lastevening, so I thought I wouldcomeover and see if therewas notsomething I could do."
"Oh, that was very kindofyou, "Meg answered, tsk-tsking as she peeredatValoree’s ravagedface. "I fear we havejust not had much luck with cosmetics on the girl. Lastnightwas the second foundation we have tried sincearriving, and the secondtime we have had problems. I fear she just is not suited to such concoctions."
"Well, it certainly does not seem to have affected her popularity any, "LadyThurborne said brightly.
"Yes, well, " Daniel piped up, "it appears Lady Valoree isin much the same boat as myself. She must marry to gain her inheritance. Someone let thatslip, and it has made the gossipmill.
Every secondson anddown-on-his-luck lord in London showed up here today."
"Oh!" Lady Thurborne’s eyes widened slightly; then she confided, "Well, I had heard something about that. About the will, I mean. Actually, I am surprised that you are notmarried already, dear.Surely there were some marriageable menon that island you grewup on? Whichisland was it? "
Meg sidestepped the question for her. "As to meeting marriageable men, IfearHenry, Valoree’s uncle, was not very interested in society. It was not until we married that Henry understood the importance of society and a coming-out and marriage. Hence the reason Valoree iscoming out at such an advanced age."
Valoree’s head whipped around at the "advanced age"
comment, a scowl darkening herexpression. She wasn’t that old.
"How old are you, dear? " Lady Thurborne asked with curiosity. Valoree hesitated, then answered reluctantly.
"Four and twenty."
Valoree grimaced at the woman’s shock and dismay. She’d reactedas if She had said sixty.
"Aye." Meg’s expression wasdisconsolate, but Valoree swore she sawa spark of humor in her eyes. "Such aproblem.Andthen there is the codicil to her father’s will, which adds even more urgency to the issueof marriage."
"Iheardaboutthat, too, " Lady Thurborne confided. "I was told that to inherit, she has to be married and have ababe – or at least bewithchild – by her next birthday. When is that, dear? "
"A mere nine months away, " Meganswered.
"Oh, dear!" Lady Thurborne exclaimed, again."Well, then you must get to work on it at once." Her eyes moved to her son speculativelybefore announcing, "Danielis in asimilarsituation himself."
"Is he? " Meg askedwithinterest, andValoree turned to glareat themanin question, silently willing him todo, or say, something tostop anyone from suggesting whatobviously camenext.
Daniel peered backinnocently for amoment, then intercepted hismother asshe opened her mouth to speak. "I suggested to Lady Valoree thatwe team up to solve both our problems, " he claimed, makingValoreegasp in horror. "Butalas, she refused me."
"What? " Both women gasped asone, gapingfrom Daniel to Valoree. Even Lady Thurborne’s maid looked shocked that Valoreehad refused the man. Lady Thurborne shook her head.
"Well, Daniel. ‘Tis no wonder sherefused.Nogirl wishes to be proposed to so cavalierly. Theylikeromance, sweet words, and charming gifts. No doubt those gentlemen Bess and I saw parading down the hallaswecame out of thekitchen will offer thosethings if you will not. There must have been a dozen men – were there not, Bessy? " She glanced toward her maid, her eyes suddenly widening as they landed on the bowl the girl stood patiently holding."Oh! Thesalve!"
She wason her feet at once and hurrying overto dip a fingerin the bowl’s contents. "Ithink itisstill all right, "she saidat last.
"But, really, weshould have applied itatonce."
"Aye, before it putrefied." Daniel chuckled, suddenly at Valoree’s side. Glancing up athim, Valoree found herself staring withfascinationat his eyes. They sparkled withlife, and actually seemed to twinkle in hishandsome face.
"Well, shall wedo it over here? "
Forcing hergaze away from the woman’s son, Valoree saw that Lady Thurborne had moved to achair by the fire and was now waiting for her expectantly.
"Come, Valoree.Sit here and we shallhaveyou looking and feeling betterinno time."
Valoree’s gaze slid from the bowl to theseat the woman was encouragingly patting.She really didnot want any more stuff on herface.
"Mother’s concoctions are really quite miraculous, " Daniel announced, his eyes alight with laughter. "She is infamous among the tonfor them."
"I have helped quite a few people over the years with one ailmentor another." Lady Thurbornesmiled modestly. "Come, dear. Sithere."
"Ido not think – "Valoree began, only to be interrupted by Meg.
"Oh!A brilliant idea, andso kind of you to think of it." The woman was suddenly at Valoree’sotherside, giving her apoke.
"Hey, that hurt!" Valoree exclaimed, glaringat her. Sheturned that glare towardDaniel as alaugh slippedfromhim.
"I am sorry, dear. Why do you not sit over there as Lady Thurborne suggested? " Meg urged, adding under her breath so onlyValoree could hear, "OrshallIfetch Henry andthe men to vote on it? "
Furiousbut unwilling to be further humiliated, Valoree moved reluctantly to the chair andtook a seat. The moment she did so, the three women closed inon her, blockingany possibility of escape as Lady Thurborne’s maid dipped her fingers in the bowl of goo.
Craning her neck slightly, Valoree examinedthe contents. It was graywith reddish chunks in it.She opened her mouth to ask what it was, thensnapped her lips closed and leaned back as far as she couldin an effort to avoid the maid’s hand – it had come out of theguck witha nasty glob of salveon thefingertips and moved toward her face. Unfortunately, seatedand surrounded as she was, there wasno escaping. It was coldand slimy as the maid began to smooth it around.
Valoreeimmediately wrinkledhernose atitssmell. "What is it? "
"An old family recipe, " Lady Thurborne told her, watchingthe application closely. "It is passedon only to family members."
"What a shame, " Valoree lied. Not that Lady Thurborne seemed tonotice.Daniel did, though, and she was gratified by a snort of amusement from him. She found herself thinking that she liked it whenhe laughed. Especiallywhen she’d made himdo so.
He had a nicelaugh, fulland deep and robust. His eyes sparkled, andhis teeth flashed.And hehad all histeeth – withnot a brown, gray, orblack one among them. Pretty impressive, she thought.
He wasa handsomeman. She had seenprettier men, perhaps, but there was just something about him that appealed to her.
"You couldhaveit if the two of you married."
Valoree blinked at Lady Thurborne’s sly words, her mouth dropping slightly. Then Meg added, "Oh, would that notbe nice, "
in a vaguelyamused tone. Valoree glared at the older woman, quite positiveMeg knew that She had no interest atall inmaking Daniel her husband.He was too … Well, hejust wasn’t right for whatshe had in mind! "You should not grimace, dear. Youwill getwrinkles, " Meg lectured sweetly. Valoree glared at her silently as her face was quicklycovered in chunkyslime.
"Oh, my, Mother.What wondrous stuff this is. Ibelieve I see an improvement already, " Daniel said as he peered over the woman’s shoulder at Valoree’s face. Her eyes immediately snapped to him, spitting fire, but he merely winked inresponse.
His mother turned andslapped him playfullyon the arm.
"Oh, do behave, Daniel. You shouldnot even be here.Why do you not go visit with the men? "
"Because this is far more interesting, and even educational."
"You know, " Lady Thurborne murmured, drawing Valoree’s gaze back to her expressionas she peeredthoughtfully at Meg, "you look terribly familiar, my lady. Is it possible wehave metin the past? Perhaps ere your journey to the Caribbean? "
"Me? " Meg stammered. "Oh, nay. Nay. I have been in the Caribbean since I was quiteyoung. Quite young." Sheglanced around a bit desperately; then hergaze settled on thedoor. In a voice strident with sudden anxiety, she added, "I had best go and seeto those refreshments. Our cook appearsto betaking histime with them."
"Oh, nay!" Valoree shot outofher chair, herfirst opportunity to escape presentingitself. "I shall tend tothat. Youshould stay and visit. Who knows, mayhapyou and Lady Thurborne knew each other aschildren."
Meg looked quite upset inthe glimpse Valoree had of her face as she slid out of the room – distraught even, almost ina panic. It was enough to make Valoree feel a touch guilty.Almost. Not being used to the sensation, she shrugged her shoulders uncomfortablyasshestrode down thehall. It did not help. The guilt remained solidly across her shoulders like a cloak. This nobility business wasreally starting to irritateher. Nothing was fun anymore, not even a littlegood-natured spite! Cursing underher breath, shepushed through the doors into the kitchen.She hadbarely registered the empty room andthe open back door whensomething slammed into the back of her head. Lights exploded behindher eyes, nausea rolled up from her stomach, andthenthose lights faded to darkness.
Thehue andcry coming fromsomewherenear the backof the town house was the first indication Daniel had that anything was wrong.Aware that thewomen were following, hemoved swiftly out of thesalon toward the shoutsandcries of alarm downthe hall. There, a good half-dozenofValoree’ssuitors were clogging the entranceto the kitchens.
"What is it? Let me through, " heordered, makinga path where therehad been none even beforethe men began to shift out of the way. Reaching the front of the pack, he found himself staring down ataneven tighter circlethat consistedof Valoree’s uncle andthemen who passedfor her servants. They were bent over an unconsciousValoree.Kneeling beside the girl, her uncle reached for her shoulderand turned herontoherback. A horrified gasp immediately wentaround the men.
"MyGod! Look at what they done toher face, "theservant with the eye patch criedas Valoree’suncle sat back in dismay.