Hertfordshire, May 1814
Discourage your charge from gossiping, but be
aware of all the latest on-dit yourself, so you can
separate the sheep from the wolves.
— Miss Cicely Tremaine, The Ideal Chaperone
The carriage crested a hill and Lady Regina Tremaine gasped at her first glimpse of Castlemaine, nestled in one of the Chiltern hills' verdant valleys. The place lived up to its name gloriously. Despite its lack of a moat, it was the very picture of a Tudor castle with its battlements, parapets, and pointed gothic windows. How odd to find it plunked down here in Hertfordshire among the oxen and the barley, only twenty miles from London. It was like stumbling upon Camelot in the midst of Whitechapel.
"Interesting, isn't it?" said Cicely Tremaine, her spinster older cousin and chaperone.
"Fascinating." Though she'd expected something of the sort, after hearing Louisa wax rhapsodic over her home. "If it's not too gloomy on the inside. You know how dank and dark these old piles can be."
Shortly after, as a footman ushered them inside, she discovered that the place wasn't gloomy in the least. Yes, someone had gone a bit wild with the theme. Rumor had it that the previous viscount had spent a fortune overhauling the castle some twenty-five years ago; inspired by Walpole's Strawberry Hill, he'd turned the crumbling old building into a gothic masterpiece.
It had been finely done, however. The burnished dark woods and the ironwork gave an impression of strength. Despite the faded hues of the ancient tapestry hanging on one wall, the overall impression was of lush colors — the rich gold-shot silk of the drapes and the vibrant reds and blues of the stained-glass window at the top of the magnificent mahogany staircase.
Cicely edged closer to her. "On the inside it's not quite what one expects."
"No." Regina knew Lord Draker was rich, but given his notorious reclusiveness, she'd expected sooty ceilings and cobwebs lurking beneath every chair — not this immaculately clean foyer with its sparkling crystal chandelier and a Tintoretto painting that proclaimed the owner's wealth and taste.
But only to those who knew art. Either Lord Draker was more sophisticated than she'd realized, or he merely liked interesting pictures.
She hoped it was the latter. She had her best successes with shallow or simpleminded men; clever ones were a bother, although even they could be gotten round easily enough if she put her mind to it.
The butler approached, looking flustered. "Good morning, ladies. There must have been some mistake. Miss North is in London at present and — "
"I'm not here to see Louisa," Regina said with a smile. "Would you kindly tell his lordship that Lady Regina Tremaine would like a word with him?"
The butler's face turned an interesting shade of purple. "H-His lordship?"
She raised one eyebrow. "This is Castlemaine, isn't it?"
"Certainly, my lady, but...well...you do mean that you wish to see the viscount, don't you? Lord Draker?"
"Marcus North, the sixth Viscount Draker."
"Yes, yes, that is the one," she said impatiently. "Have we come to the wrong house?"
"Perhaps this is a bad time," Cicely whispered, her pallor deepening.
"Nonsense." Regina offered the butler a cool smile. "Would you inform his lordship that I am here to see him?" She added archly, "If it's no trouble."
The butler colored again. "Of course not, my lady. Forgive me, but ladies rarely...that is, his lordship does not..." He trailed off weakly. "I will inform him of your arrival at once."
"Sweet heaven, what a servant!" Regina told Cicely, as he hurried up the main staircase. "You'd think his master was a troll from the way that fellow acts."
"They do call him the Dragon Viscount," Cicely said.
Regina glanced up at the Tintoretto portraying St. George slaying the dragon, the Draker coat of arms with its black dragon rampant, and the mahogany newel post with a coiled dragon atop it. "I can't imagine why," she said dryly.
Cicely followed her gaze. "Not just because of that. Why, I heard that only last year he reduced a bookseller in the Strand to tears over some moldy old book the man had promised to him, then sold to Lord Gibbons. And he actually struck one of His Highness's messengers last month."
"I also heard that Lord Maxwell keeps a goat in his bedchamber, but you don't see me sending someone to milk it. One mustn't let idle gossip govern one's actions."
"There's more than just rumor surrounding his lordship." Cicely breathed heavily, having her usual trouble with her weak lungs. "What about his treatment of his mother? Don't you remember the horrible claims Lady Draker made when she used to visit your parents?"
"I remember that Lady Draker had a knack for dramatic exaggeration. Besides, his lordship can hardly be as awful as she claimed and raise a sister as lovely as Louisa. Who, incidentally, says that her mother lied about her son's supposed mistreatment."
Cicely looked mutinous. "Miss North is probably too terrified of her brother to say anything else."
"She doesn't act terrified, I assure you. She seems to think he walks on water." Indeed, the incongruity between Louisa's and society's respective images of Lord Draker intrigued her. Even if she hadn't needed to pay this visit, she might have come just to determine his character. "That's why Louisa won't accept my brother's attentions without his lordship's permission. Because she respects Lord Draker's opinion."
"Yes, but — "
"Shh," Regina interrupted. "Listen."
The butler's plaintive voice wafted down the stairs.
"B-But milord, what shall I tell them?"
"Tell them I'm indisposed," answered a deep male voice. "Tell them I'm in India. I don't care what the hell you tell them as long as you send them away."
"Yes, milord," came the butler's meek reply.
Regina scowled. So Lord Draker refused to let her have her say? Not if she could help it. Spotting the servant stairs down the hall, she started for them.
Cicely grabbed her by the arm. "What are you doing? You can't just — "
"Stay here and keep the butler occupied." Regina shook off her cousin's weak grip. "I mean to speak with Lord Draker one way or the other."
"But, my dear — "
Regina didn't stay for further reproaches. If his lordship thought she would drive twenty miles from London only to be put off like some importunate creditor, he was in for a surprise.
Upstairs in the lengthy hall, it took her only minutes to find — after peeking inside the rooms behind every other massive oak door — the one that must lead to his lordship's study. She hesitated just long enough to examine herself in a nearby mahogany-framed mirror. Cheeks pleasingly flushed from their drive, check. New Bourbon hat firmly in place, check. Matching lilac mantle that gaped open to reveal just a hint of bosom, check. Lord Draker did not stand a chance.
Before she could lose her nerve, she opened the door and swept inside, right into the dragon's cave. Except that it wasn't lined with blackened stones smelling of sulfur...but with gilded leather smelling of ink. Books. Thousands of books marched around the walls in varying shades of brown and dark blue, further proclaiming their owner's education and wealth.
The room was enormous, probably spanning the entire length of the house. How could a person own this many books, let alone read them?
Sweet heaven. She was in deep trouble now. Not only was the viscount probably a clever man, but a clever man with lots of knowledge at his fingertips. She brushed off that unsettling thought. He was a man, after all, and a bookish man at that, with little knowledge of society, current affairs...feminine wiles. Surely her usual charm and a flirtatious smile would suffice.
If she could find the dratted fellow. The library appeared to be empty. She closed the door behind her more loudly than she'd meant to, and a rich baritone voice wafted down to her from the heavens.
"I take it you got rid of Foxmoor's sister."
She jerked, then glanced up to see a ledge directly over her head. Moving farther into the room, she turned around and found the Dragon himself. He was up on a little gallery that ran along the near side of the high-ceilinged room and contained even more bookshelves. His impressively broad back was to her as he took down a volume and opened it with almost paternal care.
It was the only careful thing about him. Everything else was haphazard — the raggedly trimmed hair that fell unfashionably below his collar, the dust-smeared fustian suit, and the scuffed boots.
And he was huge. No wonder everyone believed the rumor that he was actually Prinny's son. He certainly had Prinny's height and large frame, but without the corpulence that plagued His Highness.
The shaggy-haired giant returned his book to the shelf, then squatted to remove one lower down, giving her a view of his well-shaped behind and the impressive thigh muscles straining against the fabric of his ill-fitting trousers. Her mouth went dry. Even she could appreciate a fine male figure when she saw one.
"Well?" he asked. "Did Foxmoor's sister give you any trouble? I hear she's the troublesome sort."
The words jerked her back to the matter at hand. "No more troublesome than the average lady put off by a rude gentleman."
He stiffened, then rose to face her, and she sucked in a breath.
He was nothing like his rumored sire after all. For one thing, he wore an exceedingly unfashionable beard. His Highness would eat nails before he'd grow his whiskers that long. But the prince would certainly not mind having this man's body. A pugilist's meaty shoulders and burly chest tapered down to a surprisingly trim waist. Even his calves appeared to be well-turned, though his stockings...
She blinked and looked again. His stockings didn't match.
"Are you finished yet?" he snapped.
She jumped. "Finished what?"
"Looking me over."
Drat it, she hadn't meant to stare. She jerked her gaze up to his bushy beard. "You can't blame me for being curious. Few people ever get to see Castlemaine, much less its owner."
"There's a reason for that." He turned his back on her to restore his book to the shelf. "Now if you'll excuse me — "
"I certainly will not. I wish to talk to you."
He removed another volume. "Like brother, like sister, I see. Can't take 'no' for an answer."
"Not when the 'no' comes without an explanation."
"I'm busy. That should be explanation enough."
"You're not busy; you're a coward."
He whirled to face her, his scowl raining dragonly fury down on her. "What did you call me?"
Excellent, Regina — why not just slap his face with your glove?
But drat the man, he'd really roused her temper. "A coward. You're perfectly ready to slander my family to your sister, but heaven forbid you should state your objections to our faces."
A laugh echoed in the library. "You think you and your brother scare me?"
Her annoyance increased. "Simon said you refused to speak with him."
"He knows perfectly well why I prefer to communicate through the Iversleys. And if he insists on continuing to corrupt my sister — "
"Corrupt!" she protested. "My brother would never corrupt anyone!"
" — I'll be happy to meet with him in person." Lord Draker fixed her with his hard gaze. "So tell Foxmoor that sending his sister here won't soften me one whit."
"He doesn't even know I've come. I'm not here on his behalf. I'm here to argue for your sister."
She didn't miss the subtle gentling in his features. "Louisa sent you?"
"She said you would never listen to her, since she's so inexperienced in society. But she hoped you might listen to someone who knows it well enough to point out the advantages of an alliance between her and my brother." Especially since the Iversleys upheld Lord Draker's refusal to let Simon near the poor girl.
His face closed up. "Louisa was wrong. My mind is set."
"What possible objection could you have to Simon? He's one of the most eligible gentlemen in London."
"I'm sure he is," he said, with an impatient wave of his hand. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."
Regina was not used to being dismissed or ignored. And to have this...this beastly devil do so was beyond the pale. "I'm not leaving until I hear some reason for your objection. Because I certainly can't see a good one."
"You wouldn't." He swept his gaze from the tip of her lilac hat to the points of her expensive kid shoes, and she would have sworn she saw admiration flicker in his gaze. Until he added with a sneer, "Your sort never does."
She bristled. Tired of craning her neck up at this obnoxious creature, she approached the stair that led up to the gallery. "And what sort is that?"
"A wealthy lady of rank moving in the highest circles of society."
She began to mount the little stairs. If he wouldn't listen, she'd trap him on the gallery and make him listen. "Your sister is a wealthy lady of rank moving in the highest circles of society."
He scowled at her. "She's only there until she finds a decent husband. I want a better life for her than that of a society chit." He swept her with a contemptuous gaze. "The sort who spends her days dithering over what color ball gown to wear."
His blatant assumption stoked Regina's temper even higher. She stepped onto the gallery and walked toward him. "I suppose you'd rather she marry a bushy-faced hermit like you. Then she can spend her days listening to him rebuff all her visitors."
His lordship shot her a scalding look. Sweet heaven, he had the most beautiful eyes she'd ever seen — a rich brandy brown, with long dusky lashes a shade darker than his hair.
A pity those eyes presently burned a hole through her skull. "Better that than spend it catering to Prinny and his ilk," he said.
The light dawned. "Oh, I see. You object to Simon because of his friendship with His Highness. You don't like your sister being around your father after you went to such great pains to throw the man out of here all those years ago."
"You're damned right I don't. And what's more — " He broke off suddenly. His frown disappeared, only to be replaced by a suspicious crinkling at the corners of his gorgeous eyes. "You do realize you just called me a bastard."
"I did not!"
"In the eyes of the law, my father was the fifth Viscount Draker. And since you were clearly not referring to him..."
He had her there, drat him. Clever gentlemen were such a bother.
He went on smugly, "One would think a duke's daughter would know better than to throw salacious rumors about a man's parentage right in his face." He settled his hand on the gallery rail. "But then, we both know how thin is the facade of manners that your sort put so much stock in."
"Now see here, you overgrown oaf, I've had enough of your half-baked ideas about me and my 'sort.' " Pivoting on her heel, she headed back toward the little stair. "If you want to force Simon and Louisa to sneak around behind your back, then fine by me. Who cares if they're caught in some compromising position and tarred by scandal? I shall simply tell my brother to go right ahead setting up their secret meetings — "
"Stop!" he roared.
She halted near the stairs, a smile playing over her face.
He came up behind her. "What the devil are you babbling about?"
"Oh, no, I shan't trouble you with it — you're far too busy." She continued toward the stairs slowly — very slowly. "Clearly I've taken up too much of your precious time already. So I'll be on my way."
She'd already reached the stairs when he grabbed her arm and swung her around to face him. "Not until you tell me what's going on, damn you."
Fighting a smile, she removed his hand from her arm. "Are you sure you can spare the time?" she said sweetly. "I don't know if I should impose."
He marched forward, forcing her to back down the stairs. "Your hints about 'secret meetings' had better be more than the figment of your imagination. Because if you think some paltry trick will gain you my attention — "
"Trick? Surely you don't think a woman who spends her time dithering over which gown to wear could trick a clever gentleman like you."
He swore under his breath.
Take that, you big lout. She was so busy congratulating herself that she didn't pay attention and missed a step. She stumbled and was about to tumble backwards to the floor when his lordship snagged her about the waist.
For a moment they stood frozen, with only his broad arm beneath her back preventing her from falling. Thank God he was strong.
And surprisingly clean, for all his mismatched stockings and rough looks. A heady scent of bay rum and soap wafted through her senses, making her wonder if he were not quite the oaf he seemed.
Then his eyes dropped to where her pelisse had fallen open to reveal her low-cut bodice, and his gaze lodged there as if stuck.
Men often stared at her breasts — on occasion she'd even used that to her advantage. But for some reason, his staring unsettled her. He looked as if he wanted to devour them...and make her enjoy the devouring.
As her breasts pinkened beneath his gaze, she opened her mouth to rebuke him, then noticed the edge of the scar that crawled above his beard and onto his cheek. She'd heard he had a scar, but no one seemed to know how he'd received it or how bad it was. His heavy beard covered most of it, but the part that showed looked rather nasty.
He lifted his eyes to her face. Catching where her gaze was fixed, he scowled. "Watch your step, madam. You wouldn't want to go tumbling."
His thinly veiled threat sent a shiver along her spine. And what had he done to gain such an awful scar anyway? She shuddered to think.
Shifting her in his arms, he lifted her as if she weighed less than nothing and set her firmly on the floor two steps below, then descended to loom over her.
"Now, Lady Regina, you're going to explain exactly what you mean by my sister and secret meetings. Because you're not going anywhere until you do."
His low rumble of a voice sparked a peculiar quivering in her belly. Apparently, she'd awakened the sleeping dragon.
Now she must figure out what to do with him.
Copyright © 2005 by Deborah Gonzales