Excerpt from Don't Tempt Me
As he usually did upon entering a room, the Duke of Marchmont paused to size up the situation. Even now, after the bottle or two or three, his gaze was not as sleepy as it appeared to be.
- Lexham standing in front of the fire, looking ready to tear his hair out.
- Lady Lexham fluttering upon the chaise longue, in her best dying moth imitation.
- At the large central table, the four married Lexham daughters, all in black, a color particularly depressing in women of their complexion. As usual, the two eldest appeared to suffer from an obstruction of the bowels. As usual, the two younger ones suffered the consequences of a lively conjugal life. They looked ready to drop brats any minute now--twins or ponies, judging by their circumference.
- and at the window...
...a girl with a book in her lap.
A girl with golden hair and startled blue eyes, the bluest eyes in all the world, set in a heart-shaped face, all creamy white and pink...
That was as far as Marchmont got. He was aware of his own eyes widening and of a curious galloping sensation in his chest and a feeling of being set on fire then thrown into a deep pool of water. He was equally aware of the way the pink in her cheeks deepened and the way her shoulders went back while he stared and the way the movement drew his attention downward to a figure with the elegant curves of a statue of Venus he’d seen somewhere or other.
All of this happened so quickly that it disrupted the already uncertain connection between his tongue and his brain. Even at the best of times, he might speak first and think later. At present, thanks to the bottle or two or three, his mind was in a thickish haze.
He said, “Ye gods, it’s true. That dreadful girl is back.”
The masculine voice uttering his name in a familiar patient tone made him blink. He climbed out of the very deep pool and into the present. He tore his gaze from the girl and aimed it at his former guardian.
Lexham’s expression had changed to one all too recognizable: a mixture of exasperation and affection and something else the Duke of Marchmont chose not to put a name to.
“Thank you, sir, I should indeed like a glass--or ten--of something,” he said, though he knew perfectly well that Lexham was not offering a drink. Marchmont recognized all of his former guardian’s tones of voice. When he said “Marchmont” in that way, it meant, “Recollect your manners, sir.”
Nonetheless, his grace persisted, as he often did, in willfully misunderstanding. “Something strong, I think,” he went on. “I find myself in need of a bracer.”
Zoe. Here. Alive. It wasn’t possible. Yet it must be, because there she was.
He looked at her again.
She looked right back at him, up and down, down and up.
The back of his neck prickled. He was used to women eyeing him. This sort of survey usually occurred, however, in gatherings of the demimonde or in a private corner of an ostensibly respectable social event. It did not happen in the open in an unquestionably respectable domestic setting.
He was not disconcerted. Nothing disconcerted him. Disoriented was more like it. Perhaps he should have had a little less to drink before he came. Or perhaps he hadn’t had enough.
“But of course you want something to steady your nerves, dear,” said Lady Lexham. “I fainted dead away when I saw our Zoe.”
This didn’t surprise him. The calamity of twelve years ago had sent Lady Lexham into a dangerous decline. When she did recover physically, she did not recover the steadiness and strength of mind she’d once possessed, though he was not sure she’d ever possessed great stores of either quality. These days her ladyship spent much of her time agitated, swooning, or trembling--sometimes, all three at once.
At the moment, he himself felt oddly lightheaded. “Zoe, indeed,” he said. “So it is.”
He made himself meet the assessing blue gaze again.
The girl smiled.
It was and it wasn’t Zoe’s smile, and for some reason the image of a crocodile came into his mind.
“And now I’ve lost a thousand pounds,” he went on, “for I made sure I’d find another Princess Caraboo in your drawing room.”
“Good grief!” cried one of the sisters.
“Is that what they’re saying?” said another.
“What would you expect?”
“I daresay it isn’t the worst of the rumors.”
Marchmont’s gaze swung toward the Four Harridans of the Apocalypse.
“You ought to see the satirical prints,” he said. “Most...inventive.”
“You needn’t rub it in.”
“You find it all hilarious, I don’t doubt.”
“If you’d been harried from pillar to post, as we have been--”
“Don’t waste your breath. He--”
“You are a duke,” came a feminine voice that didn’t belong to any of them. It was like theirs but different.
Marchmont turned away from the Matrons of Doom and toward the girl at the window: the girl who was and wasn’t the Zoe he’d known so long ago.
She had risen from the chair. Her deep red cashmere shawl set off handsomely the pale green frock and was draped in a way that perfectly framed her figure. The high-necked frock’s narrow bodice outlined an agreeably rounded bosom. The fall of the skirt told him her waist was smallish and her hips full. She seemed taller than her sisters, though it was hard to be sure, given that two of them had expanded so much horizontally, and all four of them were seated.
In any event, she was not a pocket Venus by any means, but a full-sized model.
Her potently blue eyes held a speculative glint. Or was he imagining that? His vision was in good order. He had no trouble focusing. His brain, on the other hand, was unusually sluggish.
“You speak English,” he said. “More or less.”
“It was much less at first,” she said. “Lord Winterton hired a companion and a maid for me. They couldn’t speak Arabic. No one else but he could, and he would not. For all the journey home, I had to speak English. And it came back.” She tipped her head to one side, studying his face as though it, too, were a forgotten language. “I remember you.”
In the voice that was like and unlike her sisters’ he detected no trace of anything one might call a foreign accent. Yet she spoke with a lilt that made the sound exotic. It was a voice with shadows and soft edges.
“I should hope so,” he said. “You tried to kill me with a cricket bat once.”
She nodded. “I went round and round, then I fell on my bottom. You laughed so hard you fell down.”
“Did I?” He remembered all too clearly. The mental cupboard would not stay closed.
“I remembered that while I was away,” she continued. “I often pictured you falling down laughing, and the recollection cheered me.” She paused. “But you are...different.”
“So are you.”
“And you are a duke.”
“Have been for some time,” he said. “Since before you went away.” Forever. She’d gone away forever. But she was back. He knew her, yet she was a stranger. The world was not altogether in balance.
She nodded, her smile fading. “I recall. Your brother. It was very sad.”
Sad. Was that the word?
It was in the way she said it. He heard a world of sorrow in that word. He remembered how she’d wept and how shocked he’d been, because Zoe Octavia never wept. And that had somehow made his own grief all the more unbearable.
“It was a long time ago,” he said.
“Not to me,” she said. “I crossed seas, and it was like crossing years. To everyone it must seem as though I have come back from the dead. If only I had done so in truth, I might have brought your brother with me.”
One devastating moment of shock, a sting within as of a wound opening--but then:
“Good heavens, Zoe!” a sister cried.
“Pay her no heed, Marchmont,” said another. “She has acquired the oddest notions in that heathenish place.”
“What does he care? Blasphemy is nothing to him.”
“That doesn’t mean one ought to encourage her.”
“One oughtn’t to encourage him, either.”
“But I must speak to him,” the girl said. “He is a duke. It is a very high rank. You spoke of dukes and marquesses. Will he not do?”
A collective gasp from the harridans.
“Do for what?” he said. The wound, if wound it had been, vanished from his awareness. He glanced from sister to sister. They all looked as though someone had shouted, “Fire!”