How to Vex a Viscount--Part Deux

Last week, I posted the first chapter of How to Vex  a Viscount. I’m planning to publish this Georgian set romance sometime in September, but until I do, I’m serving up a chapter a week. If you missed last week’s chapter, here’s a link to it: Chapter One.

Miss Drake, it is my sincere hope this will be the final time I am called upon to send you notification of rejection for membership.

With respect,
Sir Alistair Fitzhugh, Esq.

Chapter Two

“What colossal cheek!” Daisy gaped at Lucian’s retreating back. The man had the gall to turn her quest for knowledge into something decidedly bawdy. Of course, he might argue that she started it when she asked if the blasted lamp was life-size. But in her defense, she’d been under the assumption that she was talking merely to herself.

Why, Lucian was a veritable eavesdropper.

And insufferably smug.

To top it off, the dark-eyed devil hadn’t even invited her in to hear his blasted lecture! He was no better than the rest of the gentlemen in the Society.

And he’d committed the further unpardonable sin of not remembering her.

Sir Alistair had refused to admit Daisy to the lecture hall earlier. The study of antiquities was far too “earthy” a subject for a young lady, he’d said, looking down his long Scottish nose at her. Now that Daisy knew the speaker was only Lucian Beaumont, she was of half a mind to return to her great-aunt’s town house.

But the door to the lecture hall hadn’t latched behind Lucian when he took his leave, and Daisy wasn’t the sort to let an opportunity slide by. With a quick glance up and down

the corridor to make sure she wasn’t seen, she pulled the door open and sidled through as small a crack as possible.

The entire back row of chairs was empty, so she slipped into a seat and hoped no one would notice. Once she got a look at the mosaic propped up on the dais, she was sure no one would spare her a second glance.

The myriad of tiny colored tiles were almost completely intact. Even from her distant vantage point, she could tell that the artwork was splendid. But Daisy could see why this mosaic wasn’t on display to the general public. The subject matter would shock a sailor, and since she’d been raised by a prodigal pirate, that was saying something.

The work was nearly the size of a hogshead of beer in a public house. All around the outside of the circular mosaic, there were scantily clad figures depicted in odd poses, some bent over, some with limbs entwined in uncomfortable-looking positions. A few were joined in groups of three instead of two.

Daisy squinted, wishing she’d thought to borrow Great Aunt Isabella’s lorgnette. She turned her attention to the much larger representation in the center of the circular design.

The figure was a man, his calm Roman eyes looking out on the world with amused interest, the slightest upturn to his mouth. He stood proudly, his short tunic displaying muscular legs.

And protruding from beneath his tunic was an organ that would put Uncle Gabriel’s stallion to shame. It was as long as the man’s forearm and nearly as thick.

Hmph! Bet that’s not life-size either, Daisy thought, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. It looks more likely to impale than pleasure.

Daisy often sneaked into Isabella’s library to read her collection of love poetry. Most recently, Daisy had discovered the unpublished memoirs of Mademoiselle Blanche La Tour, a French courtesan, who led an extremely adventurous life in and out of the boudoir. Mlle La Tour was not reticent in her description of either type of exploit, so Daisy’s knowledge of intimate behavior far outstripped her personal experience.

She was reading through the journal slowly, asking Nanette, her great aunt’s French maid, for help when her own grasp of the language proved too school-girlish for the subject matter. Nanette proved a font of information, as well. Daisy never imagined so much could be accomplished with something as small and seemingly insignificant as a tongue.

She jerked herself back from her naughty musings. Lucian was speaking.

“This mosaic was unearthed on my father’s estate in the ruins of what I confidently believe was once a Roman proconsul’s residence,” he said. “Only a regional governor would have commissioned such a work.”

“Why do you say that?” one man spoke up. “It appears to me that any man with means would choose to have himself depicted as Priapus. I’d fancy something on that order on the boudoir walls myself.”

Several gentlemen laughed with him.

“Phallic cult art has always been popular, Lord Brumley, but only a politically well-connected gentleman would project his power in such a display in the foyer of his home. He must have been a proconsul, a man accustomed to obedience from those around him,” Lucian said. “And one who had no fear of his own wife.”

Daisy covered her mouth with her gloved hand to stifle a giggle.

Lucian certainly knows how to silence a detractor.

Lady Brumley’s public set-downs of Lord Brumley were legendary, as was her family’s close connection to the Crown. Her less well-placed husband quaked behind her,

walking a narrow line indeed. Lord Brumley made up for this humiliation by blustering loudly and bullying others whenever Lady Brumley was absent.

“As you can see from the artist’s rendition,” Lucian was saying, “the Romans led a varied and experimental life of the flesh. However, as fascinating as this mosaic is, the find I’m about to unveil is even more beguiling.”

To a man, his audience leaned forward in their seats.

Lucian reached down into his small valise and pulled out an object no larger than Mlle La Tour’s journal. “A wax tablet and stylus.”

The assembly loosed a collective sigh of disappointment.

“Well, it seems in remarkable condition,” Sir Alistair said. “But I fail to see how a tally of grain shipments or slave purchases—”

“I know that’s usually what one finds on these things, but not so in this case.” Lucian cradled the tablet as if it were his firstborn. He reached a finger to trace the delicate writing, then pulled back as if he’d thought better of it. “No, gentlemen, this is the treasure I promised to share with you in this lecture. Or rather, the way to find the treasure.”

“Well, don’t riddle us, Rutland,” Lord Brumley grumbled. “We have neither the time nor the patience.”

Nor the intellect, Daisy added silently.

“What is it then? Out with it,” Brumley said.

Lucian held the tablet over his head like Moses descending from Mount Sinai. “This is the record of a Roman treasure that went astray and was never recovered—a year’s pay for the entire Roman Legion on the British isle.”

Daisy could almost hear the men calculating the sum in ancient coin as they settled back into their seats.

This time, Daisy leaned forward. The lure of a treasure tempted her as though she possessed a dragon’s attraction to shiny hoards. When she was a little girl, her uncle had discovered a pirate’s cache of Spanish gold beneath the stones of her home, Dragon Caern Castle in Cornwall. The sudden wealth changed her family’s life forever. Her uncle might be a mere baron and a former pirate, but the Spanish gold meant even dukes now sought him out for friendship and counsel.

Though Daisy and her sisters couldn’t claim a title in their own right, a generous dowry had landed a match with a marquess for her older sister, Hyacinth. The twins, Posey and Poppy, were engaged to an earl apiece. Only Lily was still in the schoolroom.

Daisy could have married thrice over, but she had little use for dandies. The men who danced attendance on her with visions of Spanish doubloons sparkling in their eyes were irritating in the extreme.

And more than a little dull.

Besides, none of them ever made her heart race like a certain dark-haired boy with an Italian accent had.

Drat the man! How could he not even remember her?

“What I offer you today,” the dratted man in question was saying, “is a chance to partner with me to find this Roman payroll.”

The thrill of finding Dragon Caern’s treasure had never paled in Daisy’s mind. It was the finest adventure her family had ever had.

She longed to do it herself this time.

“After all this time, it’s not probable the treasure is still intact,” Lord Brumley said with a sniff. “Does the tablet give the location?”

Lucian flashed a quick grin. “If it did, I’d not be likely to divulge it, would I? However, it’s not quite that simple. This tablet, though convincing, doesn’t contain the whole story. The narrative is unfinished, but it contains a sworn statement that the entire payload had been cached in one location. So I have to conclude that another as yet undiscovered tablet contains the rest of the information. Now we—”

“I understand you can’t give specifics, but what, in general, does the tablet say?” Sir Alistair asked. As head of the Society of Antiquaries, he was a bona fide scholar. Of all the men in the room, Daisy judged him most likely to be able to read an ancient Latin text. Daisy had a passing acquaintance with many of the others in attendance—Lord Lindley, Lord Halifax, Sir Benton Wembley, to name a few—and she’d never have guessed at their interest in antiquities.

Perhaps it was the risqué nature of the ancient art that commanded their attention.

“The tablet details a crime, a theft committed by the proconsul’s steward,” Lucian explained. “The named felon was one Caius Meritus, a freedman in the governor’s service. It seems he absconded with the pay wagon—”

A hiss of whispers circled the room. A wagonload of Roman coin, then. The mental calculations resumed.

“He hid the money and tried to flee the island, no doubt planning to return later to retrieve the treasure when the furor died down. Caius Meritus was killed in his escape attempt, but he left clues behind as to the whereabouts of the hoard.”

“What clues?” Sir Alistair asked.

“That is information I reserve to be shared with my partners in this endeavor,” Lucian said.

Sir Alistair waved a dismissive hand. “What assurance do you have that the Romans didn’t find it themselves?”

“Their own testimony that they didn’t,” Lucian said. “Caius Meritus’s cryptic deathbed statement left them bewildered.”

“But you fancy yourself able to decipher it centuries later. This reeks of arrogance, young man!” Brumley said.

“I make no claims for my own abilities, but I daresay the scientific method and use of reason improve my chances significantly.” The slightest tightening of Lucian’s jaw was the only sign that Brumley’s needling bothered him.

“Where did you find this tablet?” Lord Brumley demanded.

“In the same general area of our excavation as this magnificent mosaic.” Lucian waved a hand toward the well-endowed proconsul. “There’s no question of its provenance. I’m convinced we’ll find enough clues at this site to lead us in the right direction.”

“What is it you require from your partners, Lord Rutland?” Sir Alistair asked.

“An excavation is an expensive undertaking. Already I’ve invested a considerable amount from my own resources.” Lucian named a sum that sent a ripple of murmurs around the room.

Lucian was either very confident or very desperate, Daisy decided.

“I would require a similar investment from my partner,” he said. “We will share credit equally when the discovery is made, and my partner will be entitled to half the value of the items uncovered.”

“In other words, you’re selling blue sky just like your father did,” Lord Brumley said with obvious disgust. “Luckily, I pulled out of the South Sea debacle in time to keep from sinking with Lord Montford, but plenty of other good men didn’t. I see you intend to follow in your father’s footsteps and lead others to ruin.”

Lord Brumley stood and turned to stalk out. Angry shouts and denunciations came from all corners of the room. Daisy rose and scurried toward the door before anyone could catch her trespassing on the Society’s meeting, but she tossed one last glance at Lucian before she made good her escape.

The look of cold fury on his face caused all the small hairs on her arms to stand at attention.

The South Sea Bubble. She’d been a child in the fall of 1720, but she remembered the financial scandal well. Probably because it was all tangled up with the visit of Lucian and his family to Dragon Caern. Lord Montford, Lucian’s father, had been trying to convince Uncle Gabriel to invest his newfound wealth in the South Sea Company. The Crown had given the investment group exclusive rights to trade with South American markets, and it was poised to make obscene profits.

Uncle Gabriel had argued that obscene was the right word for it. He hadn’t sailed the Spanish Main under a pirate’s flag for all those years for nothing. He knew the ships that plied those waters. And their cargoes.

The South Sea Company’s chief import to the New World was slaves from the African coast. Some of Gabriel Drake’s pirate crew had been runaway slaves. Daisy remembered her uncle Gabriel shouting that he’d be damned if he’d ever invest in a slaver. Not even so much as a halfpenny.

Lord Montford had stormed out of the keep in a huff, dragging his family with him. Daisy hadn’t even been able to properly say good-bye to the boy she’d bedeviled all week and become secretly enamored with.

In less than a fortnight, the stock price of the South Sea Company nosedived, taking the entire financial market with it in a crippling plunge. A good deal of speculative investing led to the crash. Many families of ancient wealth were reduced to poverty. Even Sir Isaac Newton reportedly lost over twenty thousand pounds.

Of the loss, Daisy read that the brilliant man had said only that he could not calculate “the madness of people.”

Lord Montford was ruined.

No wonder Lucian was furious when Lord Brumley compared his current scheme to his father’s greatest failure.

Daisy stood off to one side in the corridor, seemingly fascinated by the amphora collection behind the wavy glass of the display case, as more gentlemen filed out of the lecture hall. “Dreamer” and “ill-advised” were the kindest comments she overheard. “Charlatan” would rankle Lucian most.

Finally, Lucian emerged. When he saw her, he inclined his head toward her.

“I regret, miss, that I am unable to continue our pleasant conversation at this time.” His lips were pressed tight in suppressed irritation.

“Then let us conduct a business conversation instead, Lord Rutland,” Daisy said brusquely. “Your excavation intrigues me. I have the means you require. I should like to become your partner in the endeavor.”

Lucian bit back a weary smile. “Miss, you mistake me. I’m not the fraud the Society of Antiquaries would paint me. I’m in need of investors, admittedly, but I’m not yet so desperate that I will take money from a young lady to whom I’ve not even been properly introduced. Good day.”

He turned and began to stride away.

A frustrated puff of breath escaped her lips. The man had an ego as large as that of the well-endowed proconsul in the mosaic.

“Then perhaps you could prevail upon ‘Iggy’ to introduce us,” she called after him. “For he and I knew each other well.”

He halted in midstride and turned back to face her. “Daisy Drake.”

“Indeed, milord.” She bobbed a curtsy. “I’m gratified to learn that your memory is not as pocked with holes as I feared.”

He raised a brow. “You can hardly fault me for not immediately connecting a charming young woman with an irritating tomboy.”

Her chin lifted; she was both mollified by the compliment to her now and incensed by his characterization of her then. “And yet I knew you almost instantly. It’s good to see you looking fit after all these years.”

“After the way you tried to spit me with a pike at our last meeting, I find your interest in my health less than comforting.” He rubbed the little scar on his chin for emphasis. “Of course, this must have made it easier for you to recognize me.”

“That was an accident and you know it. If only you’d kept to the way we practiced the fight scene, I wouldn’t have nearly skewered you.”

Daisy and her sisters produced plays for their own amusement in the same way other families produced mediocre poetry. The theatrical merits of their dramas might have been questionable, but the Drake siblings always managed to have genuine fun.

And very infrequent bloodletting. Really, Lucian ought to have forgiven her by now.

“In fact,” Daisy continued, “one might argue that your injury was as much your fault as mine.”

“One might,” he agreed.

“Then you’ll accept my offer to become your partner?”

“With regret, no,” he said stiffly. “Given our history, you’ll understand my reluctance to form another alliance with the house of Drake. It was only the greatest good fortune that kept my head affixed to my shoulders last time. I’m not one to tempt fate.”

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