Excerpt from Last Night's Scandal
The crowd was so thick that at first all the Earl of Lisle could see was the fashionably absurd coiffure rising above the men’s heads. Two birds of paradise seemed to have their beaks stuck into a great loop of . . . red hair. Very red hair.
Only one girl in all the world had that hair.
Well, then, no surprise to find Olivia at the center of a crowd of men. She had rank and a thumping great dowry. That would more than make up for . . .
The crowd parted then, giving him a full view. She turned his way and he stopped short.
Those great blue eyes.
For a moment he stood, lost in a blue as deep as an Egyptian evening sky.
Then he blinked, and took in the rest, from the ridiculous birds hanging over the stiff loops of red hair to the pointed slippers peeping out from under the ruffles and furbelows at the hem of her pale green gown.
Then his gaze went up again, and his brain slowed to a crawl.
Between coiffure and shoes appeared a graceful arc of neck and smooth shoulders and a creamy bosom more than amply on display . . . and lower down, an armful of waist curving out gracefully into womanly hips . . .
No, that had to be wrong. Olivia was many things. Beautiful wasn’t one of them. Striking, yes: the fatally blue eyes and the vivid hair. Those were hers and no one else’s. And yes, that was her face under the absurd coiffure . . . but no, it wasn’t.
He stared, his gaze going up then down, again and again. The room’s heat was suddenly beyond oppressive and his heart was beating strangely and his mind was a thick haze of memories where he was searching to make sense of what his eyes told him.
He was dimly aware that he was supposed to say something, but he had no idea what. His manners had never been quite so instinctive as they ought to be. He was used to another world, another clime, other kinds of men and women. Though he’d learned to fit in this one, fitting in didn’t come naturally to him. He’d never learned to say what he didn’t mean, and now he didn’t know what he meant to say.
At the moment, everything anybody had ever done to civilize him was lost. He beheld a vision that stripped away all the rules and meaningless phrases and proper ways to look and move and shredded them to bits and blew them away.
“Lord Lisle,” she said, with a graceful dip of her head that made the birds’ plumes flutter. “There’s a wager on, as to whether you’d turn up for Great-Grandmama’s party.”
At the sound of her voice, so familiar, Reason began to slog its way through the muck of confusion.
This was Olivia, Reason said. Here were the facts: her voice, her eyes, her hair, her face. Yes, her face was different because it had softened into womanliness. Her cheeks were softer, rounder. Her mouth was fuller . . .
He was aware of people talking, of this one asking that one who he was, and another answering. But all of that seemed to be in another world, irrelevant. He couldn’t see or hear or think anything but Olivia.
Then he discerned the glint of laughter in her eyes and the slight upturn of her mouth.
He came back to earth with a thunk that should have been audible on the other side of the great ballroom.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said.
“I’m glad to see you,” she said, “and not merely because I’ve won the wager.” She gave him one slow, assessing look that slid over his skin like fingertips and sent heat arrowing straight to his groin.
Ye gods, she was more dangerous than ever.
He wondered whose benefit that look was for. Was she simply exercising her power or was she trying to provoke all her admirers simultaneously by pretending he was the only man in the room?
Excellent work, either way.
All the same, enough was enough.
She wasn’t a little girl anymore—if she’d ever been a little girl—and he wasn’t a little boy. He knew how to play this game. He let his gaze drift down again to her breasts. “You’ve grown,” he said.
“I knew you’d mock my hair,” she said.
She knew he wasn’t referring to her hair. One thing Olivia had never been was naïve.
But he took the hint and dutifully regarded the coiffure. Though it towered over many other men, he was tall enough to look the birds in the eye. Other women wore equally fantastical hair arrangements, he was aware. While men’s fashions had grown increasingly sober in recent decades, women’s had grown increasingly deranged.
“Some birds have landed on your head,” he said. “And died there.”
“They must think they’ve gone to heaven,” said a male voice nearby.
“Looks like rigor mortis,” Lisle said.
Olivia sent him a fleeting smile. Something curious happened inside his chest. Something else happened lower down, not at all curious and all too familiar.
He willed the feelings into oblivion.
She couldn’t help it, he told himself. She was born that way, a Dreadful DeLucey through and through. He mustn’t take it personally. She was his friend and ally, practically his sister. He made himself picture her as she’d been on the day when he first met her: a skinny twelve-year-old who’d tried to brain him with his sketchbook. A provoking, dangerously fascinating girl.
“I dressed for you,” she said. “In honor of your Noble Quest in Egypt. I ordered the silk for my gown to match the green of the Nile in your watercolors. We had to use birds of paradise because we couldn’t find ibises.”
Voice dropping to a conspiratorial tone, she leaned toward him, offering a nearer and fuller view of alabaster flesh, curved precisely to fit a man’s hands. At these close quarters he was acutely aware of the faint sheen of moisture the ballroom’s heat had brought to her skin. He was aware, too, of the scent of a woman arising therefrom: a dangerous blend of humid flesh and a light, flowery fragrance.
She should have warned him, drat her.
Think about the skinny twelve-year-old, he counseled himself.
“I wanted to dress like one of the ladies in the copies of the tomb paintings you sent,” she went on, “but that was forbidden.”
The scent and the stress on forbidden were softening his brain.
Facts, he told himself. Stick to facts, like . . .
Where were her freckles?
Perhaps the room’s gentle candlelight made them less obvious. Or maybe she’d powdered her breasts. Or had she bleached them with lemon juice?
Stop thinking about her breasts. That way madness lies. What’s she saying? Something about tomb paintings. He filled his mind with images of flat figures on stone walls.
“The ladies in the tomb paintings are not, technically speaking, dressed,” he said. “When alive, they seem to be tightly wrapped in an extremely thin piece of linen.”
The costume left nothing to the imagination, which was probably why even he—who preferred to stick to facts and leave the realm of imagination to his parents—had no trouble at all picturing Olivia’s curvaceous new body wrapped in a thin piece of linen.
“Then, when they’re dead,” he went on, “they’re overdressed, tightly wrapped in layers of linen from head to foot. Neither form of attire seems practical for an English ball.”
“You never change,” she said, drawing back. “Always so literal.”
“Leave it to Lisle to throw away a golden opportunity,” said another male voice. “Instead of complimenting the lady—as any man with eyes must do—and trying to win her favor, he must wander into a boring lecture about pagan customs.”
Yes, because it’s safe there.
“My attention has not wandered, I assure you, Miss Carsington,” Lisle said. “At present it could not be more firmly fixed.”
He’d like to fix his hands on the throat of the fiend who’d given her this face and body—as though she needed any more weapons. It must have been the devil. A trade of some kind, sometime in the five years since Lisle had last seen her. Naturally Satan, like anyone else, would have had the worst of any bargain with her.
In a corner of his mind, the voice that warned him of snakes, scorpions, and cutthroats lurking in the darkness said, Watch out.
But he already knew that, because he knew Olivia.
She was dangerous. Beautiful or striking, with or without breasts, she exerted a fatal fascination. She easily captivated otherwise intelligent men, most of whom had already seen her destroy the peace of other equally intelligent men.
He knew that. Her letters had been filled with her numerous “romantic disappointments,” among other things. He’d heard other stories since entering this ballroom. He knew what she was like.
He was merely temporarily unhinged because he was a man. It was a purely physical reaction, completely natural when one encountered a beautiful woman. He had such reactions all the time. This was disturbing only because he was reacting to Olivia.
Who was his friend and ally, practically his sister.
He’d always thought of her that way.
And that was the way he’d continue to think of her, he told himself.
He’d had a bit of a shock, that was all. He was a man who encountered shocks nearly every day of his life, and thrived on them.
“Having fixed my attention for the moment,” he said, “perhaps the lady would be so kind as to grant the next dance.”
“That’s mine,” said one of the men hovering at her shoulder. “Miss Carsington promised.”
Olivia snapped her fan shut. “You may have another, Lord Belder,” she said. “I haven’t seen Lord Lisle this age, and he’ll soon be gone again. He’s the most elusive man in the world. If I don’t take this dance, who knows when I should have another? He could be drowned in a shipwreck. He could be eaten by crocodiles or bitten by a viper or a scorpion. He could succumb to plague. He’s never happy, you know, except when risking his life to advance our knowledge of an ancient civilization. I can dance with you any time.”
Belder looked murder at Lisle, but he smiled at Olivia and yielded his claim.
As Lisle led her away, he finally understood why so many men kept shooting each other on her account.
They all wanted her and they couldn’t help it; she knew it and she didn’t care.