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Lucinda Seton needed an impressive suitor, and she needed one now.
A prince would be her first choice, but she'd settle for a duke or even a marquess, preferably one who was filthy rich.
Not that she cared about riches, oh no. Expensive phaetons tearing neck-or-nothing through town made her retch, and hothouse roses made her sneeze. Jewels were rather nice, but a lot of trouble to watch out for when strolling with one's maid in the parks.
No, she wanted an impressive suitor for one reason only: to make Peter Burnes eat his words.
Tears stinging her eyes, she paced the bedroom at Mrs. Harris's School for Young Ladies that would be hers for the next few weeks. Fie on that wretch! She jerked a shawl from her half-unpacked trunk. How could she still be crying over him? And how could that heartless blackguard choose some milk-and-water miss over her?
The memory of their humiliating exchange at last Saturday's ball made her cringe as she tucked her shawl into the chest of drawers. Bad enough that she'd foolishly asked him how they stood. But his answer...
Given my new position in society, Lucy, I require a more suitable wife. Someone of a settled and responsible disposition, not a hot-blooded hoyden who says the first thing that pops into her head.
Hunting through her trunk, she found her pencils and the sketch pad containing the drawing she'd done of him a year ago, back when he'd thought she might be a suitable wife. She stared at the tousled curls and beatific smile that always made her heart turn over, then drew a pair of vile-looking horns on his head. She wasn't an irresponsible hoyden. She wasn't!
All right, perhaps she was a trifle outspoken. But what was wrong with that? He'd enjoyed it well enough when they were children running about the regiment.
You're the kind of woman a man dallies with, not the kind he marries.
Dallies with! She gnawed on her pencil, remembering the first time Peter, a seventeen-year-old general's son three years older than she, had laughingly stolen a kiss from her. Had he been dallying even then? Had she assumed it meant something when it had meant nothing to him?
And after she'd waited months for him, too! She'd been so sure Peter would marry her. Before his departure on the Grand Tour, he'd even called her his "one true love." He'd kissed her again, so sweetly it had seemed a declaration, especially when he'd told her to wait for him.
But once he'd returned, that was all forgotten. Instead, he'd called on her dressed in costly splendor, sporting a fine gold watch and talking down to her.
You're too impassioned, too curious about things no lady should deign to notice. You can't help it -- it's in your blood.
Her foreign blood. Peter knew that Lucy had been adopted by Colonel Seton, the man she called Papa. Her real father had been an English soldier, her mother a Spanish woman of uncertain background. Not that Lucy could remember, since they'd died in the war when Lucy was only four.
But Peter didn't care about that, did he? Oh no, he only cared about the precious blood that her mother had passed on, which he seemed to think seethed with Spanish wildness and passion and fire.
Well, she'd show him wildness and passion and fire! With quick slashes of her pencil, she added a pointy tail that curved out from behind the modest frock coat he'd worn back when he was plain old Mr. Burnes, before he'd unexpectedly inherited the earldom of Hunforth.
That's when he'd become "too good" for her, too conscious of his precious lineage and important connections. That's when he'd become exactly like every other man in English society.
Although most people assumed Papa was a widower and Lucy his daughter, they soon learned otherwise from the gossips. Lady Kerr, her stepmother, had gently warned her that her odd parentage might prove an issue for high sticklers, especially since she wasn't a great heiress like her friends. And though men had shown her some interest during her first season, she'd had no offers. Not that she'd encouraged them -- she'd been waiting for Peter. But she would have thought one would have made an offer anyway.
Unless...Oh, Lord, what if Peter were right about her? What if everybody thought she was some hussy not good enough to become a respectable man's wife? Was that why men were always eyeing her bosom and trying to kiss her on balconies? They never seemed to do that to the other girls.
They certainly never did that to Lady Juliana. Rich, elegant, boring Lady Juliana, whom Peter had apparently chosen as sufficiently suitable to be his bride.
Fresh tears sprang to her eyes. How dared he spurn her? The other men didn't surprise her; half were sheep who did what their mamas said. But Peter was supposed to be...
She'd make him rue the day he'd rejected her. She had started to sketch a knife protruding from his treacherous heart when a knock came at the door. Hastily, she thrust the sketch pad beneath a pillow and bade the person enter.
Her stepmother glided into the room with her usual grace, another trait Lucy lacked. "Your father has finished his discussion with Mrs. Harris." Lady Kerr, who'd been married to Papa for little more than a year, surveyed the harum-scarum pile of clothing on the bed. "So we're leaving. And he'd like to say good-bye."
"I'll be along shortly."
Lady Kerr glanced at the open trunk. "Shall I help you unpack first?"
"I don't need your help!" Lucy snapped, then regretted it when Lady Kerr flinched. Lucy softened her tone. "It's kind of you to offer, but I can handle it alone. There's no reason for you to alter your plans."
Lady Kerr's halfhearted smile pricked Lucy's conscience. The woman had tried hard to be her friend. Papa had even hinted at how much it would mean to Lady Kerr to have Lucy call her Mother, but Lucy couldn't bring herself to do it. She chafed at Lady Kerr's constant reminders to lower her voice and mind her tongue and not laugh at men's rough jokes. If all a mother did was chide, perhaps she was better off without one.
At least Lady Kerr improved Papa's life. Though she didn't always approve of his blustering, she did love him. And she was right for him, too, strong and calm to balance his impetuous nature, and never daunted by the addlebrained things he did when distracted. Lady Kerr would make certain he didn't forget his hat.
Of course, managing Papa had been Lucy's job until she'd left for school. She missed that -- and the dinners when he'd spun tales of India or the evenings when she'd practiced her sums for his approval. Life had been simple then.
A sigh escaped her.
As usual, Lady Kerr mistook it. "You don't have to stay. Your father and I would love to have you go with us to meet Venetia in Edinburgh. Surely another instructor can teach drawing until Mrs. Harris can replace the teacher who quit."
Lucy returned to unpacking. "Actually, I look forward to the teaching. Edinburgh is such a bore, and I should stay busy until the Season is in full swing."
And she needed to show Peter Burnes that she wasn't irresponsible. After she impressed him with her levelheaded behavior as a teacher, he would grovel at her feet, admitting he'd been wrong and begging her forgiveness.
She might forgive him. She might not. But she could do neither if she were stuck up north while he pranced about town with Lady Juliana.
Taking her stepmother's arm, Lucy guided her toward the door. "You should go. You know how Papa is about waiting." Besides, she wanted them both off so she could wallow in her misery.
They walked down in silence to find Papa pacing before the stairs. When he heard them and looked up, his irritation altered instantly to pleasure.
Most of it was for Lady Kerr. And the countess's blush further illustrated their bond.
A painful yearning pierced Lucy. Would a man ever look at her like that and make her blush? Even Peter hadn't managed that. She wasn't the blushing sort.
"There's my lassies!" Papa boomed. His manner of speaking was one thing Lady Kerr hadn't civilized out of him. "Come now, Maggie, no dawdling. We must make haste while the weather is fine, eh, Lucy?"
"No rain is our gain," Lucy parroted his oft-used remark, left over from her childhood in Spain and Portugal during the war, when long marches in bad weather meant pure misery.
"You're all settled, then?" he asked Lucy as Lady Kerr took his arm.
Papa and Lady Kerr were going off together. Without her. It was all she could do to manage a smile. "I'm fine."
With a frown, he looked her over. "You don't look fine to me. It's that idiot Peter Burnes, isn't it?"
She blinked. "How did you -- "
"I'm no fool, lass. I know ye had yer heart set on him, and I saw yer face when he and that snooty Lady Juliana danced together three times at Saturday's ball. I always thought him a bit of a fribble, but I never took him for a fool until now. Ye're better off without him, d'you hear?" He chucked her under the chin. "Don't be wasting another thought on that jackanapes."
The fact that her unobservant Papa had noticed what had gone on between her and Peter was so unexpectedly sweet she burst into tears.
He stood frozen in shock until Lady Kerr nudged him. Then he hastily drew Lucy into his arms. "There, now, lass, didn't mean to make you cry. It's not so bad as all that, is it? Sh, sh, hush now."
The familiar scent of Guard's Bouquet on his collar calmed her, reminding her that he was still her dear Papa, no matter whom he'd married.
Lady Kerr held out a handkerchief, and Lucy took it gratefully, casting her stepmother a tremulous smile as she dabbed at her eyes and nose.
"As I told you," Lady Kerr said, "we'd be happy to have you come with us."
The kind remark nearly brought back Lucy's tears, but she stifled them ruthlessly. When had she become such a watering pot?
Steadying her shoulders, she pulled away. "I can't. I need to keep busy, and Mrs. Harris could use the help. I'll be fine. Really, I will."
"We'll be back in three weeks," Papa said, "but if you need us sooner, just send word."
"Thank you, Papa." Lucy kissed his cheek, then, on impulse, kissed Lady Kerr's. The bright smile she received in return made her wish she hadn't been so sharp with her earlier. "I'll miss you both," she said, and truly meant it.
She accompanied them to the coach and followed it to the end of the drive. As she strolled back, she balked at facing her unpacking. It would only provoke more tears, and she was sick of crying.
She made a sharp turn and headed across to the blooming cherry orchard that separated the school from its neighboring estate, Rockhurst. According to Mrs. Harris, Mr. Pritchard had been trying to sell it, but no one would meet his exorbitant price, since the house was nearly beyond repair. So Rockhurst had lain vacant for the past three months, which was why she felt free to wander into its orchard.
As she entered the trees, a breeze sent blossoms tumbling about her like snowflakes, and her heart lightened. Unable to resist the enticement, she kicked off her kidskin slippers and began to twirl amidst the falling blossoms as she'd done when she was a girl. The more she twirled, the less her heart ached. Her hair pulled loose from its pins to fall about her, twirling with her.
For the first time in days, she felt free to be herself, without Peter's nasty words taking her to task. When she was gasping and too light-headed to make another turn, she threw herself to the ground. Tucking her hands beneath her head, she stared up at the branches and lifted her face to the blossoms drifting gently onto her gown.
If only life could always be like this, just cherry blossoms and spring. Or even as it was during her blissful student days here, when she and the other girls learned geography and the waltz and how men could deceive you --
A sigh escaped her. She should have heeded those lessons. Instead, she'd let her imagination run away with her, soaking up the nonsense in that scandalous book of harem's tales she and the girls had read in secret. She'd convinced herself that one day she and Peter would marry and try...all those...naughty...things...
The previous night's tear-torn sleep caught up with her, and she fell into a doze. She was dreaming of a harem where the women were in charge and the sultan had to do their bidding, when a deep male voice penetrated her haze.
"What have we here? A local lady come to welcome me to the neighborhood? Or a goddess descended from Mount Olympus to sport with a mere mortal?"
Lucy's eyes shot open. Was she still dreaming? The devilishly handsome man standing at her feet could easily be a sultan, with his olive skin and eyes the color of roasted almonds. He'd clearly just come from a bath, for his glossy black hair lay damp on his neck. Shockingly, he wore only a white shirt tucked into black pantaloons tucked into a pair of top boots, with no waistcoat, coat, or cravat.
She had to be dreaming. No man hereabouts would leave his house in shirtsleeves. Or leave his shirt open at the throat to reveal a smattering of chest hair. Or wear pantaloons so tight they showed every well-defined muscle in his thighs. He was such a delicious specimen of manliness that he fairly took her breath away.
Meanwhile, his gaze slid down her body in an intimate and decidedly wicked perusal. It paused at her breasts before moving to where her gown dipped between her parted legs. After casting her stocking feet a pointed look, he smiled, his thin black mustache quirking up.
"A goddess, most assuredly," he said in faintly accented English. "No local señorita would walk about without her shoes."
Señorita? Oh, no. He wasn't her dream sultan. He was very real. And foreign. And a complete stranger.
Belatedly, she scrambled to a sitting position. Lord, what must he think of her? Before she could struggle to stand, he held out his hand. She hesitated half a second before taking it, although the moment she was on her feet, she snatched her hand free.
A chuckle escaped him. "I should beg your pardon for disturbing your siesta, but I do not regret it. You make an enchanting picture lying in the cherry blossoms."
His amusement sparked her temper. "Who are you, sir, and why are you on private property?"
He arched one finely groomed black brow. "I could ask the same of you."
"I'm a teacher at the school that adjoins this orchard." She smoothed her skirt, trying to make herself look more teacherly. It was woefully hard to do with her hair tumbled down about her waist.
"Ah, yes, the girls' academy." He cast her a speculative glance. "But that is what you are, not who. What is your name?"
Oh, dear, she wasn't supposed to be here, and if he were to mention it to Mrs. Harris..."I shan't give my name to a stranger. Especially when you haven't given me yours. You are the intruder here."
"Intruder! What a suspicious little thing you are," he said without rancor. "As it happens, you already know my name. It's on my calling card."
The comment threw her into confusion. "I-I...haven't seen your calling card. If you left it with our schoolmistress -- "
"No need to dissemble, señorita. You have it right there." He reached up to pull something from behind her ear, then held it out with a flourish.
Caught off guard, she took the gilt-edged calling card from him. "How did you..." She trailed off as she read the printed card.
Diego Javier Montalvo, Master of Mystery.
Master of Mystery? She lifted her gaze to him, seeing nothing in his half-smile to enlighten her. It didn't sound like anything a normal person would put on a card. It almost sounded like...
The truth dawned. "Oh, Lord, you're a magician."
"Indeed, I am." He gave her a mock frown. "You don't seem very pleased to hear it."
Hardly! She had a weakness for magicians -- their swirling black capes, their intriguing smiles, their astonishing ability to surprise at every turn. Coupled with her weakness for devastatingly handsome Continental gentlemen, Diego Javier Montalvo was the perfect temptation.
But Peter would never eat his words if he learned she'd been flirting with a stranger.
"Why is a magician wandering around Rockhurst?" she demanded. As a teacher, she would be most irresponsible if she didn't find out.
"Are you worried I have come to steal your neighbor's valuables?"
"Have you?" she asked archly.
That made him grin. "I would hardly tell you if I had." The words rolled off his tongue melodically, turning her knees to butter.
None of that! she chided herself as she glanced about for her shoes, which were nowhere to be seen. You must be responsible. Mature. Not swayed by good-looking men. Not the sort of woman a man only dallies with.
"Perhaps I am here to steal something else." His voice had turned calculating. "The heart of a beautiful lady like you, for example."
She burst into laughter. That sort of nonsense she could handle perfectly well. "Do you rehearse such compliments when you rehearse your tricks? Or do flatteries simply come naturally to you?"
He looked genuinely surprised. "You are very jaded for one so young."
"Young! I'll have you know I'm more than twenty years old."
His eyes seemed to mock her. "Ah, then you are clearly a woman of the world. My mistake."
She crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm certainly worldly enough to tell when a man is trying to turn me up sweet for his own purposes."
Some unreadable emotion swept his angular features. "And what purposes would those be?"
"I have no clue." She blew out an exasperated breath. "You still haven't told me what you're doing here."
"Very well, if you must know, I am the new tenant at Rockhurst."
Pure shock kept her motionless. "Oh, dear," she murmured, mortified anew.
Laughter glinted in his gaze. "So you see, Señorita Schoolteacher, you are the intruder. I saw you from the window upstairs as I was dressing and came down to learn who was invading my property." He reached up to pluck a leaf from her disordered hair. "Now will you allow me the pleasure of your name?"
Definitely not. For one thing, just the brush of his fingers over her hair had already quickened her pulse most dangerously. For another, it would be a great deal easier for him to complain of her to Mrs. Harris if he knew her name. "I-I didn't think the house was even habitable."
"It will suffice until I decide if I want to buy the estate."
But weren't conjurers nomads, living in inns and lodging houses? He was too young to retire, and even London theaters couldn't pay well enough for him to afford a property the size of Rockhurst. "What would you do with it?"
His gaze grew shuttered. "It depends."
Something in his evasive manner sparked her concern. "On what?"
"Whether it and its environs meet my stringent requirements."
Its environs? Did he mean the school? "What sort of requirements? Surely, once it is put into shape, Rockhurst would be sufficient for your family."
"I am not married." He cocked his head, dropping one raven lock over his eye, then smoothed it back with the nonchalance of a man sure of his exotic appeal. "And you? Does your position as a teacher mean you have no husband?"
She caught herself before answering. "Why are you avoiding my question?"
"For the same reason you are avoiding mine, I would imagine." His eyes gleamed with mischief. "To prolong this intriguing conversation."
A laugh bubbled up inside her that she struggled to tamp down. "Actually, I find it less intriguing than frustrating. You are purposely being mysterious."
"As are you, Señorita Schoolteacher. Indeed, your reluctance to divulge your identity fascinates me." He bent his head close enough that she caught a whiff of soap and hair oil. "You stand in my orchard and interrogate me bold as brass, yet you will not tell me something as small as your name. Are you hiding a secret? Acting as a spy?" Seeing the smile rise to her lips despite her struggle to prevent it, he lowered his voice to a throaty murmur. "Waiting for a lover, perhaps?"
She jerked back as an unfamiliar heat rose in her cheeks. Good Lord, did she give off some scent that led people to make assumptions about her character?
Then again, he had found her shamelessly lolling about on the ground of his orchard. She would have to set him straight.
"That's a very impertinent suggestion, sir," she answered in her loftiest tone. "Especially when we haven't been properly introduced."
A slow smile curved up his finely carved lips. "And do such trivialities matter to you, cariño? "
Cariño? Oh, but that was too wicked of him. Her Spanish was rusty, but she did remember that cariño was an endearment. A trill of pleasure skirled along her nerves. He should never have used it with her, whether he thought she understood it or not. And she certainly shouldn't let it do funny things to her insides.
She answered sharply, "This is not the Continent, sir. 'Such trivialities' matter to everyone in England. So if you hope for success in your ventures here, you'd best start showing some concern for propriety yourself."
Her remark darkened his gaze to a dangerous glitter. "I forgot how obsessed you English are with propriety," he bit out. "Except, of course, when you are invading other people's property."
He was right to chide her for that. And she'd been rude indeed to point out his improprieties when she'd been the one trespassing. Though she couldn't fathom why it angered him now, when he hadn't seemed to care earlier.
"Forgive me for intruding," she said, wanting to escape with her dignity -- and identity -- intact. "I must go."
She whirled toward the school but had taken only two steps before he called out, "Aren't you forgetting something?"
When she looked back, he was dangling her slippers from two fingers, his features smoothed into a charming mask once more.
"Thank you, sir," she murmured, but when she reached for the shoes, he held them out of reach, easy enough for him to do with his great height.
"Your name, señorita," he said softly, a smug smile playing over his lips.
She hesitated, weighing her choices. But there was none.
"Keep the shoes," she retorted, then ran.
Better to lose her slippers than have him inform Mrs. Harris of her shameless behavior. If Peter should hear how she'd reclined on the ground like a "hot-blooded hoyden" while some stranger looked her over, she'd simply die. As long as Señor Montalvo didn't know her name, this incident need never reach anyone. Their paths weren't likely to cross again.
Still, she wanted to warn Mrs. Harris about the man. It wouldn't do to have the girls trailing after him like lovesick puppies. Besides, something wasn't right. Why would a magician rent an estate the size of Rockhurst just for himself?
If she hadn't been so busy reacting to his flirtations, she might have pressed him for more information. But when he'd cast his hot gaze down her body and had spoken Spanish endearments in a voice of warm honey...
Lord help her. Continental gentlemen were the worst. Or the best, depending on how one looked at it. They knew exactly how to warm a woman's blood.
Perhaps Peter was right about her, after all.
She frowned. All right, she found the foreigner appealing, but he was a performer, for pity's sake. He made love to the audience every night -- he'd honed his abilities for years. Of course she was tempted. What living, breathing female wouldn't be, when a man that sinfully attractive looked at her like that?
Peter's new love wouldn't. Lady Juliana would be appalled.
Gritting her teeth, Lucy cut through the garden while twisting her hair up in a knot. She'd best pray she never saw him again. She was much too susceptible to his charms.
She'd nearly reached the steps to the entrance when a female voice asked, "Feel better now, dear?"
Startled, she whirled to find Mrs. Harris sitting at a table, reading the newspaper. "What do you mean?" Lucy asked guiltily.
"A good walk always cheers one, doesn't it?" she said without looking up.
"Oh." She relaxed. "Yes."
Itching to get inside before Mrs. Harris noticed her missing shoes and disordered hair, she hurried forward. But the schoolmistress's cry of alarm stopped her short.
"What is it?" Lucy hastened back, all thought of her own disarray banished by the woman's stricken expression.
Shaking her head, Mrs. Harris finished scanning an article in the paper. When she threw down the paper with an unladylike oath, Lucy grabbed it up. Front and center was the headline, "Magician to Build Pleasure Garden in Richmond."
Curse it -- she'd known that smooth scoundrel was up to something! She greedily read the article as Mrs. Harris rose to pace the flagstone walk.
"He means to turn Rockhurst into another Vauxhall!" Mrs. Harris exclaimed. "Can you imagine? It's a disaster! Pickpockets hiding in the orchard, watermen lounging on our river landing, music playing at all hours, and fireworks at midnight. The girls will never be able to sleep. Not to mention the scandalous goings-on that always occur at such places at night."
Between the article and Mrs. Harris's outraged recitation, Lucy gleaned the facts. Apparently, the twenty-eight-year-old Diego Montalvo was no ordinary conjurer. He was famous all over the world, performing his tricks to great acclaim before the kings of Sweden and Denmark. He'd even spent a year touring Russia, impressing the tsar with his astonishing illusions.
Now the talented fellow had come to England to raze the house next door and build a public place of amusement. Good Lord.
Mrs. Harris paced in increasing agitation. "I don't even allow my girls to visit Vauxhall strictly chaperoned. How am I to protect them with a Vauxhall rising practically at our very steps?"
Lucy glanced over at Rockhurst. She'd heard of the licentious activities occurring in Vauxhall's darkened walks while the magicians and orchestras performed. And judging from Señor Montalvo's wicked flirtations -- and the newspaper description -- that was exactly the sort of place he would establish.
No wonder he'd been so mysterious. The devious wretch was worse than Peter, dallying with her even as he plotted against the school she loved.
"I must write Cousin Michael at once," Mrs. Harris said. "He will know how to stop this." She whirled toward the steps, then halted to glare at the other property. "I swear, I shall have Mr. Pritchard's head. He has gone too far this time, bringing such trouble into our midst!"
Indeed, it would mean the end of the school.
Never! Lucy couldn't stand by and watch everything Mrs. Harris had worked for be destroyed with such careless disregard. This school meant too much to too many, including her. She wouldn't let Señor Montalvo get away with this. She was tired of men trampling over her and her friends.
Somehow, she'd show that scheming magician that he couldn't transform Rockhurst into a pleasure garden as easily as he thought. Then, after saving the school, she would make Peter eat his words about her being an irresponsible hoyden. Just see if she didn't.
Copyright © 2009 by Deborah Gonzales