Excerpt from Lord of Scoundrels
Lord Dain did not look up when the shop bell tinkled. He did not care who the new customer might be, and Champtois, purveyor of antiques and artistic curiosities, could not possibly care, because the most important customer in Paris had already entered his shop. Being the most important, Dain expected and received the shopkeeper’s exclusive attention. Champtois not only did not glance toward the door, but gave no sign of seeing, hearing, or thinking anything unrelated to the Marquess of Dain.
Indifference, unfortunately, is not the same as deafness. The bell had no sooner ceased tinkling than Dain heard a familiar male voice muttering in English accents, and an unfamiliar, feminine one murmuring in response. He could not make out the words. For once, Bertie Trent managed to keep his voice below the alleged “whisper” that could be heard across a football field.
Still, it was Bertie Trent, the greatest nitwit in the Northern Hemisphere, which meant that Lord Dain must postpone his own transaction. He had no intention of conducting a bargaining session while Trent was by, saying, doing, and looking everything calculated to drive the price up while under the delirious delusion he was shrewdly helping to drive it down.
“I say,” came the rugby-field voice. “Isn’t that-- Well, by Jupiter, itis.”
Thud. Thud. Thud. Heavy approaching footsteps.
Lord Dain suppressed a sigh, turned, and directed a hard stare at his accoster.
Trent stopped short. “That is to say, don’t mean to interrupt, I’m sure, especially when a chaps’ dickering with Champtois,” he said, jerking his head in the proprietor’s direction. “Like I was telling Jess a moment ago, a cove’s got to keep his wits about him and mind he don’t’ offer more than half of what he’s willing to pay. Not to mention keeping track of what’s ‘half’ and what’s ‘twice’ when it’s all in confounded francs and sous and what you call ‘em other gibberishy coins and multiplying and dividing again to tally it up in proper pounds, shillings, and pence--which I don’t know why they don’t do it proper in the first place except maybe to aggravate a fellow.”
“I believe I’ve remarked before, Trent, that you might experience less aggravation if you did not upset the balance of your delicate constitution by attempting to count,” said Dain.
He heard a rustle of movement and a muffled sound somewhere ahead and to his left. His gaze shifted thither. The female whose murmurs he’d heard was bent over a display case of jewelry. The shop was exceedingly ill lit--on purpose, to increase customers’ difficulty in properly evaluating what they were looking at. All Dain could ascertain was that the female wore a blue overgarment of some sort and one of the hideously overdecorated bonnets currently in fashion.
“I particularly recommend,” he went on, his eyes upon the female, “that you resist the temptation to count if you are contemplating a gift for your chère amie. Women deal in a higher mathematical realm than men, especially when it comes to gifts.”
“That, Bertie, is a consequence of the feminine brain having reached a more advanced state of development,” said the female without looking up. “She recognizes that the selection of a gift requires the balancing of a profoundly complicated moral, psychological, aesthetic, and sentimental equation. I should not recommend that a mere male attempt to involve himself in the delicate process of balancing it, especially by the primitive method of counting.”
For one unsettling moment, it seemed to Lord Dain that someone had just shoved his head into a privy. His heart began to pound, and his skin broke out in clammy gooseflesh, much as it had done on one unforgettable day at Eton five and twenty years ago.
He told himself that his breakfast had not agreed with him. The butter must have been rancid.
It was utterly unthinkable that the contemptuous feminine retort had overset him. He could not possibly be disconcerted by the discovery that this sharp-tongued female was not, as he’d assumed, a trollop Bertie had attached himself to the previous night.
Her accents proclaimed her a lady. Worse--if there could be a worse species of humanity--she was, by the sounds of it, a bluestocking. Lord Dain had never before in his life met a female who’d even heard of an equation, let alone was aware that one balanced them.
Bertie approached, and in his playing field whisper asked, “Any idea what she said, Dain?”
“What was it?”
“Men are ignorant brutes.”
Bertie let out a sigh and turned to the female, who still appeared fascinated with the contents of the display case. “You promised you wouldn’t insult my friends, Jess.”
“I don’t see how I could, when I haven’t met any.”
She seemed to be fixed on something. The beribboned and beflowered bonnet tilted this way and that as she studied the object of her interest from various angles.
“Well, do you want to meet one?” Trent asked impatiently. “Or do you mean to stand there gaping at that rubbish all day?”
She straightened but did not turn around.
Bertie cleared his throat. “Jessica,” he said determinedly, “Dain. Dain-- Drat you, Jess, can’t you take your eyes off that trash for one minute?”
She looked up.
And a swift, fierce heat swept Lord Dain from the crown of his head to the toes in his champagne-buffed boots. The heat was immediately succeeded by a cold sweat.
“My lord,” she said with a curt nod.
“Miss Trent,” he said. Then he could not for the life of him produce another syllable.
Under the monstrous bonnet was a perfect oval of a porcelain white, flawless countenance. Thick, sooty lashes framed silver-grey eyes with an upward slant that neatly harmonized with the slant of her high cheekbones. Her nose was straight and delicately slender, her mouth soft and pink and just a fraction overfull.
She was not classic English perfection, but she was some sort of perfection and, being neither blind nor ignorant, Lord Dain generally recognized quality when he saw it.
If she had been a piece of Sevres china or an oil painting or a tapestry, he would have bought her on the spot and not quibbled about the price.
For one deranged instant, while he contemplated licking her from the top of her alabaster brow to the tips of her dainty toes, he wondered what her price was.
But out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed his reflection in the glass.
His dark face was harsh and hard, the face of Beelzebub himself. In Dain’s case, the book could be judged accurately by the cover, for he was dark and hard inside as well. His was a Dartmoor soul, where the wind blew fierce and the rain beat down upon grim, grey rocks, and where the pretty green patches of ground turned out to be mires that could suck down an ox.
Anyone with half a brain could see the signs posted: “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE” or, more to the point, “DANGER. QUICKSAND.”
Equally to the point, the creature before him was a lady, and no signs had to be posted about her to warn him off. Ladies, in his dictionary, were listed under Plague, Pestilence, and Famine.
With the return of reason, Dain discovered that he must have been staring coldly at her for rather a while, because Bertie--bored, evidently--had turned away to study a set of wooden soldiers.
Dain promptly recovered his wits. “Was it not your turn to speak, Miss Trent?” he asked in mocking tones. “Were you not about to make a comment on the weather? I believe that’s considered the proper--that is, safe--way to commence a conversation.”
“Your eyes,” she said, her gaze perfectly steady, “are very black. Intellect tells me they must be merely a very dark brown. Yet the illusion is...overpowering.”
There was a quick, stabbing sensation in the environs of his diaphragm, or his belly, he couldn’t tell.
His composure faltered not a whit. He had learned composure in a hard school.
“The conversation has progressed with astonishing rapidity to the personal,” he drawled. “You are fascinated by my eyes.”
“I can’t help it,” she said. “They are extraordinary. So very black.But I do not wish to make you uncomfortable.”
With a very faint smile, she turned back to the jewelry case.
Dain wasn’t certain what exactly was wrong with her, but he had no doubt something was. He was Lord Beelzebub, wasn’t he? She was supposed to faint, or recoil in horrified revulsion at the very least. Yet she had gazed at him as bold as brass, and it had seemed for a moment as though the creature was actually flirting with him.
He decided to leave. He could just as well wrestle with this incongruity out of doors. He was heading for the door when Bertie turned and hurried after him.
“You got off easy,” Trent whispered, loud enough to be heard at Notre Dame. “I was sure she’d rip into you--and she will rip if she’s a mind to, and don’t care who it is, either. Not but what you could handle her, but she does give a fellow a headache, and if you was thinking of going for a drink--”
“Champtois has come into possession of an automaton you will find intriguing,” Dain told him. “Why don’t you ask him to wind it up so that you can watch it perform?”
Bertie’s square face lit with delight. “One of them what-you-call-‘ems? Truly? What does it do?”
“Why don’t you go look?” Dain suggested.
Bertie trotted off to the shopkeeper and promptly commenced babbling in accents any right-thinking Parisian would have considered grounds for homicide.
Having distracted Bertie from his apparent intention of following him, Lord Dain had only to take another few steps to be out of the door. But his gaze drifted to Miss Trent, who was again entranced with something in the jewel case, and eaten by curiosity, he hesitated.