Excerpt from Lord Perfect
Disaster would not have occurred had Bathsheba Wingate been paying full attention to her daughter.
She was not paying attention.
She was trying desperately to keep her gaze from straying to the bored aristocrat...to the long legs whose muscles the costly wool trousers lovingly outlined...the boots whose dark gleam matched his eyes...the miles of shoulders bracing up the window frame...the haughty jaw and insolent nose...the dark, dangerously bored eyes.
Bathsheba might as well have been a giddy sixteen-year-old miss when in fact she was a sober matron twice that age, and she might as well have never seen a handsome aristocrat before in all her life when in fact she’d met any number and even married one. She was not herself and she didn’t know or care who she was.
She only stood for a long time, trying to pay attention to the Egyptians instead of him, and oblivious of the minutes passing during which Olivia might easily recreate some of the more harrowing scenes from the Book of Revelation.
Bathsheba forgot she even had a daughter while she stood as though trapped, her heart beating so fast that it left no time or room to breathe.
This was why she failed to notice the signs of trouble before it was too late.
The crash, the outraged yelp, and the familiar voice crying, “You great blockhead!” told her it was too late at the same time they broke the spell. She hurried toward the noise and snatched the sketchbook from Olivia’s hands before she could throw it across the room--and break a priceless object, beyond doubt.
“Olivia Wingate,” Bathsheba said, careful to keep her voice low, in hopes of attracting as small an audience as possible. “I am shocked, deeply shocked.” This was a hideous lie. Bathsheba would be shocked only if Olivia contrived to spend half an hour among civilized beings without making a spectacle of herself.
She turned toward the flaxen-haired boy, her daughter’s latest victim. He shifted up into a sitting position on the floor near his overturned stool, but that was as far as he came. He watched them, grey eyes wary.
“I said I was going to be a knight when I grew up and he said girls couldn’t be knights,” Olivia said, her voice shaking with rage.
“Lisle, I am astonished at your flagrant disregard of a fundamental rule of human survival,” came an impossibly deep voice from somewhere nearby and to Bathsheba’s right. The sound shot down to the base of her spine then up again to vibrate against an acutely sensitive place in her neck. “I am sure I have told you more than once,” the voice went on. “A gentleman never contradicts a lady.”
Bathsheba turned her head toward the voice.
Ah, of course.
Of all the boys in all the world, Olivia had to assault the one belonging to him.
She was the sort of woman who made accidents happen, simply by crossing a street.
She was the sort of woman who ought to be preceded by warning signs.
From a distance, she was breathtaking.
Now she stood within easy reach.
Once, in the course of a youthful prank, Benedict had fallen off a roof, and briefly lost consciousness.
Now, as he fell off something and into eyes like an indigo sea, he lost consciousness. The world went away, his brain went away, and only the vision remained, of pearly skin and ripe plum lips, of the fathomless sea in which he was drowning...and then a pink like a sunrise glowing upon finely sculpted cheekbones.
A blush. She was blushing.
His brain staggered back.
He bowed. “I do beg your pardon, madam,” he said. “This young beast is far from fully civilized, I regret to say. Get up from the floor, sir, and apologize to the ladies for distressing them.”
Peregrine scrambled to his feet, countenance indignant. “But--”
“He will do nothing of the kind,” said the beauty. “I have explained to Olivia time and again that physical assault is not the proper response to disagreements unless one’s life is in danger.” She turned to the girl, a freckle-faced redhead who bore not the slightest resemblance to her mama--if mama she was--except in the eye department. “Was your life in danger, Olivia?”
“No, Mama,” said the girl, blue eyes flashing, “but he said--”
“Did this young man threaten you in any way?” said her mother.
“No, Mama,” the girl said, “but--”
“Was it merely a difference of opinion?” said her mother.
“Yes, Mama, but--”
“You lost your temper. What have I told you about losing your temper?”
“I am to count to twenty,” the girl said. “And if I have not regained it by then, I must count to twenty again.”
“Did you do so?”
A sigh. “No, Mama.”
“Kindly apologize, Olivia.”
The girl ground her teeth. Then she took a deep breath and let it out.
She turned to Peregrine. “Sir, I mostly humbly beg your pardon,” she said. “It was a ghastly, unspeakable, heinous act I perpetrated. I hope the precipitous fall from the stool did you no permanent or disfiguring injury. I am so deeply ashamed. Not only have I attacked and possibly maimed an innocent person but I have disgraced my mother. It is my ungovernable temper, you see, an affliction I have suffered since birth.” She fell to her knees and snatched his hand. “Can you be so good, so generous, kind sir, as to forgive me?”
Peregrine, who had listened to this speech with increasing bewilderment was, for perhaps the first time in his life, struck dumb.
The mother rolled her outrageously blue eyes. “Get up, Olivia.”
The girl clung to Peregrine’s hand, her head bowed.
Peregrine threw a panicked look at Benedict.
“Perhaps now you comprehend the folly of contradicting ladies,” said Benedict. “Do not look to me for rescue. I hope it will be a lesson to you.”
Speechlessness being alien to Peregrine’s character, he swiftly recovered. “Oh, do get up,” he told the girl crossly. “It was only a sketchbook.” The girl didn’t move. Voice moderating, he added, “Uncle is right. I ought to apologize, too. I know I’m supposed to agree with whatever females as well as my elders say, for some reason or other. If there is a proper reason. No one has ever explained the rule’s logic, certainly. At any rate, you barely hit me. I only fell because I lost my balance when I ducked. Not that it matters. It’s not as though a girl could do much damage.”
Olivia’s head came up, and her eyes shot deadly sparks.
The boy went on, oblivious, as usual. “It wants practice, you know, and girls never get any. If you did practice, you’d strengthen your arm at least. That’s why schoolmasters are so good at it.”
The girl’s expression softened. She rose, the subject having diverted her, apparently. “Papa told me about English schoolmasters,” she said. “Do they beat you very often?”
“Oh, all the time,” Peregrine said.
She sought details. He provided them.
By this time, Benedict had recovered his composure. So he believed, at any rate. While the children made peace, he allowed his attention to revert to the breathtaking mama.
“Her apology was not necessary,” he said. “However, it was most--er--stirring.”
“She is dreadful,” the lady said. “I have tried several times to sell her to gypsies, but they wouldn’t take her.”
The answer startled him. Beauty so rarely came coupled with wit. Another man would have rocked on his heels. Benedict only paused infinitesimally and said, “Then I daresay there’s no chance they’d take him, either. Not that he’s mine to dispose of. My nephew. Atherton’s sole progeny. I am Rathbourne.”
Something changed. A shadow appeared that had not been in her countenance before.
He had presumed, perhaps. She might be as beautiful as sin and she might have a sense of humor, but this did not mean she was not a stickler for certain proprieties.
“Perhaps a mutual acquaintance is idling about who would introduce us properly,” he said, glancing about the gallery. At present, the space held three other persons, none of whom he knew or could possibly wish to know. They looked away when his gaze fell upon them.
Then a shred of sense returned and he asked himself what difference a proper introduction would make. She was a married woman, and he had rules about married women. If he sought to further the acquaintance, it would only be to violate those rules.
“I greatly doubt we have a mutual acquaintance,” she said. “You and I travel in different spheres, my lord.”
“We’re both here,” he said, his tongue getting the better of Rules Regarding Married Women.
“As is Olivia,” she said. “I can tell by her expression that she is nine and a half minutes away from getting one of her Ideas, which puts us eleven minutes away from mayhem. I am obliged to remove her.”
She turned away.
The message was plain enough. As plain as a bucket of ice water thrown in his face. “I am dismissed, I see,” he said. “A fitting return for my impertinence.”
“This has nothing to do with impertinence,” she said without turning back to him, “and everything to do with self-preservation.”
She collected her daughter and left.