Authors: Janice Maynard
Palms damp, she reached out a hand, grasped one of the heavy circlets and rapped it three times. In her imagination, the sound reverberated inside the house. Shifting from one foot to the other, she waited.
The interval was no more than a few seconds, but it might as well have been eons. At last, the door swung open, and an older man, clad in the traditional garb of a butler, greeted her with a slight inclination of his head. “Good day, mum.”
Daisy hesitated, abashed at his formality. “My name is Daisy Wexler. I’m here to speak to the duke.” She thought about mentioning her go-between, but decided against it.
As she fidgeted, the majordomo assessed her rumpled clothing and lack of transportation. “I will see if His Grace is ready for visitors,” he said stiffly. “Perhaps you’ll be so kind as to wait in the parlor.”
Daisy perched on a cushioned settee that looked as if it might have supported the fannies of knights and ladies down through the ages. Her heart rapped against her ribs and her knees felt like jelly even though she was seated.
She’d flown across an ocean to request information from a duke, and until this very moment, she hadn’t actually contemplated what form such a conversation might take. Perhaps she should have rehearsed. Under normal circumstances, she never had any trouble with shyness. But even for someone reared on the precepts of equality for all, the idea of actually meeting nobility was daunting.
Her throat was completely dry by the time the starchy retainer returned to fetch her.
The man looked down his nose. Or so it seemed to Daisy. “He will see you now.”
Daisy followed her escort along one hallway and then another. To call this place a house was a misnomer.
was the more correct term. It was surely next to impossible to adequately heat the enormous chambers with their vaulted ceilings and stone floors.
Finally, the butler halted in front of a set of double doors. Grasping both knobs and pulling them open with ceremony, he stepped aside and spoke to someone beyond Daisy’s line of sight. “Ms. Daisy Wexler to see you, Your Grace.”
Again, her knees trembled. Glancing at the servant beside her, she found neither sympathy nor assistance in his blank gaze. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she entered the room.
For a moment, awe overtook her. The chamber in which she found herself was like something out of a movie. Enormous mullioned windows shone in the afternoon sun. Though the glass was immaculate, millions of dust motes danced in the beams of light, no doubt courtesy of the heavy gold-brocade and crimson-velvet draperies that flanked the wavy antique panes.
A priceless Oriental rug, faded but lovely, lay on the floor beneath her feet, adding to the impression of old money and exquisite taste. As a librarian, she couldn’t help but also be impressed by the walls of bookcases, laden with leather-bound volumes.
But before she could do more than glance at them, something else, or rather some
, caught her eye.
The man had his back to her, his gaze trained on the view beyond the curved bank of windows. Standing behind an impressive antique desk, the silent figure projected an air of absolute authority. Suppressing an insane desire to curtsey, Daisy moved into the room, hoping to see him more clearly. Framed as he was in the alcove, the sun blinded her.
As she walked toward him, expecting him to speak at any moment, she took stock of her host. He wore a navy suit, obviously hand tailored to fit his broad-shouldered, lanky frame. Dark brown hair showed evidence of dampness, as if he had showered recently. The faint, pleasant scent of aftershave lingered in the air.
Her toes curled in her canvas espadrilles. Curiosity and anticipation warred with nervousness in her stomach. “Thank you for meeting with me,” she said quietly. “I’d like to ask you some questions, if I may.”
“Be seated.” The words were low and terse, barely audible.
Feeling like a recalcitrant schoolgirl, she glanced at the choice of seats on her left and right before deciding on a Louis XIV needlepoint chair. Unfortunately, it was more impressive than comfortable. She squirmed to settle herself, set her tote on the floor and took out a pad and pen. Laying them on the edge of the highly polished escritoire, she sat back and folded her hands in her lap.
The silence lengthened and deepened. “Your Grace?”
Perhaps her verbal prompt was considered a social faux pas, because those wide, impressive shoulders stiffened. “Patience is not really an American virtue, is it?” he said, the syllables curt and aristocratic.
Something about that gravelly but cultured voice raked across Daisy’s nerves like a kitten’s claw on silk. She swallowed hard, unable to speak.
Finally, the duke turned around to face her. Daisy’s breathing stumbled. “You?” she cried. “You’re the duke?”
The man stood with one hand in his pants pocket, the other resting on the back of a carved chair. His fingers were long and masculine. He was cool, collected and remote. Neither a smile nor any sign of recognition marked his expressionless face. No indication at all that just minutes before he had coaxed her into breathless intimacy on a hilltop.
,” he said. “Ian Furchess. We don’t stand much on ceremony these days, so you may call me Ian. Tell me, Ms. Wexler, what brings you to the Lake District?”
Her mouth hung open. Did he seriously think she didn’t recognize him? The cognac-colored eyes were the same. The thick, wavy chestnut hair. Was she losing her mind? Perhaps this sophisticated nobleman was
to the fellow she’d met outside.
But no…it wasn’t possible. She had kissed him passionately only moments ago.
“You were feeding pigs,” she blurted out. “But you’re a duke.”
At last the hint of a smile lifted the corners of his beautiful mouth. “In case you haven’t noticed, Ms. Wexler, we are having an extraordinarily lovely dose of early spring. Even dukes have been known to play hooky on such occasions.” With complete calm, he sat down at the desk and rested his hands on the arms of the chair.
Forcing herself not to gape, Daisy backed up mentally. If this was how he chose to play their official encounter, she would go along with it. “Call me Daisy,” she said firmly. As if he hadn’t already. “I’m here on behalf of Victor and Vincent Wolff.”
Ian’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“Surely you’ve heard of Wolff Enterprises.”
“Indeed. They’re a multinational corporation, well-respected even outside the States. But again, what does that have to do with me?”
“My employers are in their early seventies and semiretired. One of the younger Wolffs is at the helm of the organization now, and with more spare time on their hands, the two older men have taken up studying the family tree. Recently, they came across a document that suggests a connection with your ancestors. Obviously Victor and Vincent aren’t interested in money. They have plenty of their own. But they are extremely invested in finding out whether or not their family has roots here, in the seat of the Wolffhamptons.”
She took a deep breath and sat back, realizing that her palms were sweaty and her stomach churned from being so close to him. Ian appeared unruffled. Perhaps he dallied with wandering tourists frequently.
He picked up an expensive pen and rapped it lightly against the leather blotter. It was the first time she had seen him exhibit even a hint of agitation. “Why you, Daisy? Why did they send you?”
“Because I’m very good at what I do. I’m a research librarian at the University of Virginia. The Wolffs hired me to come here and examine some of your family records. If you give your permission, that is?”
Ian frowned inwardly. All he had to do was say a definitive “no” and send her on her way. But he couldn’t. Not yet. He didn’t want to. He could only think about lying beside her on a grassy hill and acting like a man and not a duke. For a few short moments with Daisy, his life had seemed full of possibilities.
He sighed. “I assure you, Daisy, we take genealogy very seriously here in England. And I can also tell you with absolute certainty that my dear grandmother and I are the only remaining members of the Wolffhampton family. Period.” He hated disappointing her, but her employers had sent her on a fool’s errand.
She leaned toward him, her heart-shaped face earnest. The passion and conviction in her voice seduced him as surely as her beautiful spirit. “But your family may have been misled,” she said. “A bastard son, Octavius, who shamed your ancestors with his antics,
die at sea, as it was claimed. He survived being thrown overboard, showed up in America, took Wolff as his surname, started a family without bothering to get married, and made a fortune in railroads.”
. “How do you know this?”
“Victor and Vincent found a journal.”
“And you have this for me to examine?”
“Well, no. It’s far too valuable to travel with…but I photocopied some pertinent passages. All I need to do is see your family Bible and any other records you may have from that time so I can cross-reference the information in the journal. You can call the Wolffs if you want to verify my identity.”
He shook his head in bemusement. “I doubt you’re here to steal the family silver. And I suppose there’s no harm in letting you poke around. But why on earth are you staying in a hostel? Surely the Wolffs could have sprung for more upscale accommodations.”
Guilt etched her expressive face. “I’m trying to save money. When I’m done here, I hope to take a few days and visit Scotland. Do you know if it’s true what they say? That the men go naked beneath their kilts?”
His lip curled in exasperation. “What is it with you women and Scotsmen? An Englishman is worth two of those barbarians any day.”
Daisy grinned at him, the sparkle in her eyes making him want to kiss her again…urgently.
“Nevertheless,” she said primly. “I cancelled my original reservations and I’ve been spending as little cash as possible. I guess a man like you couldn’t understand that.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “A man like me?” They had played this verse before.
“You know. Rich.”
He decided to let that comment pass. “Why are you so determined to see this through? Most people would have cut and run the first time I told you to leave.”
Vulnerability shadowed her face, and he sensed that what she was about to say wasn’t something she told just anyone. “I grew up in a children’s home, knowing very little about my birth family, so genealogy has become a passion of mine. I have a few leads about my great-grandfather, a faint possibility that I hope to follow up in Scotland, but without being hired by the Wolffs, I could never have managed to get here. I owe it to them to uncover the answers they seek. And hopefully I can find some of my own.”
“I see.” He admired her spunk and independence. Daisy Wexler was as determined to steer her fate as he was to steer his. And despite the strictures of his upbringing, he was a man accustomed to action.
Suddenly, a shocking idea came to Ian, one that guaranteed him more time with the delectable Daisy and at the same moment offered a possible solution to a very awkward situation. “I have a proposition for you, Daisy. In exchange for my cooperation on the research front, you could do me a favor.”
She looked suspicious. And rightly so. “What kind of favor?”
He stood up and rounded the desk, propping his hip on the priceless antique. Daisy shrank back in her seat, her eyes wide.
Leaning forward, he took her hand and drew her upward to stand beside him. “Tell me, Ms. Daisy Wexler. Do you know how to dance?”
Daisy found herself in danger of swooning like a Victorian miss. The Duke of Wolffhampton at close quarters was an impressive figure. She was fairly certain that the buttons on his worsted wool suit were made of sterling silver imprinted with a coat of arms…no doubt the crest of the mighty Wolffhampton dynasty.
But as beautiful as the garment was, Daisy couldn’t help thinking he would look better naked.
She nibbled her bottom lip. “Dance?”
He played with a strand of her hair, his crooked grin lazy and sexy. “A man. A woman. Romantic music. You know the drill. Saturday is Valentine’s Day…and it also happens to be my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday. We’re having a little soiree here at the castle to celebrate. Nothing too fancy. A hundred people or so. I’d like you to accompany me as my date.”
Daisy might not have had a speck of aristocratic blood in her veins, but she knew a scam when she saw one. “It’s a little hard to believe that a duke has to troll for female companionship a few days before an event.”
“I’m in a bit of a pickle. My sainted nana has invited a young woman who Grandmother hopes will agree to be my bride.”
Daisy’s heart plummeted to her feet. “You can’t find your own girlfriends? Seriously?”
Ian drew her across the room to the one piece of furniture that actually looked cozy…a low, cushiony love seat. They sat hip to hip, his big, hard body warming hers. “In case you haven’t noticed, this monstrosity of a house is a money drain. I am in the unenviable position of being the first Duke of Wolffhampton who may actually have to deed the property over to the National Trust and let strangers tramp through the house in order to pay the taxes. We’ve been limping along so far, but Grandmother fears that I am depleting my personal fortune and throwing good money after bad.”
“And are you?”
He leaned back and stretched out his legs, his thighs rippling with muscle beneath the expensive fabric of his trousers. With his hands behind his head, he gave her a sideways glance. “Truthfully? Yes. Grandmother has decided that the only solution is for me to marry an heiress. Guilliana’s bloodlines are impeccable, and her father is, as you Americans say,
Daisy hated the woman already. “Does she want to marry
” Of course she did. What woman with a brain and two eyes wouldn’t? Ian Furchess was a catch.
“I have no idea. But Grandmother has invited Guilliana to the party, and since I’m not yet ready to throw myself on the sacrificial altar, it occurs to me that you would be the perfect diversion.”